Seated by her lonesome at Largo’s oddly durable upright piano, newcomer Nellie McKay delivered her skewed, adult-beyond-her-years view of romance and everyday life with giggles and vigor Tuesday. McKay’s a 19-year-old product of musical theater and Gotham coffeehouses, and her lyrics fall like conversations and an assortment of “memos to self,” some critical, some uplifting and all delightfully crafted. Musically, her songs have a richness influenced by Sondheim, Randy Newman, Tin Pan Alley and Cole Porter, a composer whose wordplay influences her as much as Eminem — nothing seems to turn her on like quickly dashed couplets.
Her 18-song Columbia Records debut, “Get Away From Me,” is a rare bounty of treasures, yet her live show inflates the honesty of songs such as “David,” “I Wanna Get Married” and the slyly mean-spirited “Won’t U Please B Nice.” It’s a delight to be in the company of a writer in love with language; when she rides a lyrical bullet train, it can get a bit dizzying, but she closes each number with satisfying and often calming coda.
City life can bring on a certain level of claustrophobia, and that closed-in feeling certainly informs much of McKay’s songwriting. She’s lusty, romantic and trapped, both by age and circumstances, and she brings a bite to material that, for the most part, wouldn’t be out of place on a Barbra Streisand album. Still, she’s by no means mainstream: McKay resides at the rarely visited intersection of middle period Blossom Dearie and early Ani DiFranco.
A far more expressive pianist than her peers weaned in similar venues (Norah Jones, Keri Noble), McKay (pronounced Mick-Eye) consistently tugs and pulls at melodies and forces her voice to go places it isn’t necessarily in the mood to go. Her between-song banter is comical and yet real — having her mother in the audience may have been a strain on her nerves, but it certainly helped keep the audience in stitches. So young and yet so complete — Columbia has really found itself a gem.