By: Peter Monden
Editor In Chief
My taste in music is generally consistent but fairly narrow. Most of what I listen to could be categorized under post punk, goth rock, industrial, synthpop, or new wave. However there are exceptions, Nellie McKay is one such example.
I might be a Nellie McKay fan, it’s hard to say. I’m definitely the closest thing to a fan of anyone I know. McKay is not particularly popular, with only around 30,000 monthly listeners, though some of her earlier work has garnered critical praise. McKay’s style has changed a fair bit since her 2004 debut “Get Away From Me.” Her first album had a lot of angry energy at times, but spent a fair amount of time in a laid-back wistful tone. Jazz has always been the throughline of her work. The stylistic variety apparent in most of Nellie McKay’s albums occasionally results in tracks that I really like, but often there’s an abundance of tracks that aren’t really my taste.
“Hey Guys, Watch This” is no different. The opening track “the drinking song” is a slow, almost hymn-like opener. There might even be a slight hint of country to the track. Despite the general clash with my taste in music, I like the track. I think it’s starting to get stuck in my head. The next song, “luckiest mood” has a sort of bluegrass twang with vocals that range from singsongy to almost house music like. This song also features additional male vocals that have a jazzy quality at times but manage to fit in. The upbeat nature of the song makes it a tough sell to the likes of me, and I don’t care too much for this one. Then there’s “badumbump” which is the first great song on the album. It’s a sort of anti-folk song with a slightly wistful quality which is close enough to sad to meet my approval.
“Forever home” is a more upbeat song, but is in a similar style to the previous one if a bit more jazzy. It’s also pretty good and was the first song on the album to get my attention the first time listening. “Driftin” is next on the album; it’s slow, upbeat and understated swing. I could see the track's usefulness if you wanted something to hear that would put you to sleep. Next is “the party song,” which is one of two entries with an explicit lyric. It’s similar to forever home but more upbeat, despite that I actually like this one, though the lyrics aren’t exactly positive. I found “queen mary” vaguely interesting but not interesting enough; t's a return to the slow jazz that characterizes much of Nellie McKay’s music. “Initiation” might be the most unusual track on the album. I’m not quite sure how to describe it, but it’s pretty good. I’d describe it as spoken-word-esque and anti-folk. The song is overtly about domestic abuse, which is something to keep in mind since it can be a sensitive subject, so I thought was it worth pointing out.
The next two songs “did i catch you dreaming” and “lali” are pretty similar in style to “luckiest mood” and are pleasant enough. They aren’t really my cup of tea, but I kind of like them. “Dreamliner” is another upbeat slow jazz type song, similar to “driftin.” In retrospect, I was too harsh on “driftin,” both of these songs are good, not my favorites but they’re nice to hear.
Finally, the last track is “make a wish.” It’s in a folksy style that stands out from the rest of the album. This track is definitely the most out of place stylistically and officially the weirdest. I can only guess the song’s going for shock value, which it definitely achieves. There are multiple instances of explicit language and subject matter in this song. The song calls out issues of race, sexism and homophobia from the perspective of a young, Black, lesbian serial killer. The subject matter is all over the place but Nellie McKay’s signature seems to be clubbing the listener over the head with absurd spectacle and unclear commentary. Making points with all the precision of a sledge-hammer might be a more frank way to put it. In fairness there may not even be an intended point. I think this song technically qualifies as industrial by the end with the sounds of power tools tying into the subject matter. I can’t say I get the point of this one, but it is catchy if overwhelmingly off-putting.
Overall I liked the album. Maybe it’s Stockholm syndrome kicking in after the fourth listen, I can’t be sure. “Hey Guys, Watch This” is definitely a big departure from my daily listening, and as with most of Nellie McKay’s work, it’s got some rough edges, but I guess I’d recommend it. The album is available on Spotify as well as for purchase on her Bandcamp page. Variety seems to be her strength as an artist as there’s always something there I can enjoy. The few shocking moments are definitely part of the appeal for me. There's no other artist quite like Nellie McKay. Standing out against the insane surplus of independent musicians these days is quite an accomplishment, and that puts her ahead of many musicians in my book.