ON the Beat | Charm Schooled Chanteuse with Ulterior Agendas

Josef Woodard

This edition of ON the Beat was originally emailed to subscribers on January 18, 2024. To receive Josef Woodard’s music newsletter in your inbox each Thursday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.

Nellie McKay performs at SOhO on Jan. 23 | Photo: Courtesy

It’s hard to get an easy handle on the essence of the unique Nellie McKay, and that’s why we love her. That may also be why her moment in the larger commercial spotlight wasn’t as assured or durable as it should have been. But no matter: McKay has settled into a respectable artistic life just on the outskirts of the mainstream, and a short-notice booking at SOhO — on Tuesday, January 23 — is good news for modern music lovers who also have a taste for kitsch and music seemingly airlifted from the 1920s-40s and mutated by some alternate universe filter.
McKay’s story is not so unusual for an artist who fell from grace with the major label world, but never with her own private muse. McKay released two albums on the Columbia label, Get Away from Me in 2004 and then the struggled-for second, double album, Pretty Little Head. Partly due to her dismay over her corporate home, that was all McKay wrote for her “Columbia years,” but has gone on to create a body of work unlike any other.

We’ve caught McKay in Santa Barbara before, bringing her bright-toned songbook and voice, piano, and ukulele for one of my favorite nights in the long-running, beloved Sings like Hell series at the Lobero and at SOhO back in 2018.

Also a writer, she penned The Sexual Politics of Meat (she is an avid vegan and animal rights advocate, among other causes) and as actor/singer, she appeared on Broadway in The Threepenny Opera.
McKay’s music may be layered and challenging, but is charming and quasi-retro on the surface — it goes down easily on impact, with her intelligent wordplay and thematic side tripping into surprising places. That delicate balancing act is alive and well on her brilliant new album Hey Guys, Watch This (listen here), her first album of original music in a dozen years. In contrast to the lilting sweetness of her 2019 EP Bagatelles — a ukulele-featuring treatment of innocuous standards tellingly including “Accentuate the Positive” — the new album bristles with the pretty little tunes and also heady imagination she brings to her songwriting.
Wrapped around her clean vocal approach, old school — really old — pop textures, jazz touches, and background vocal arrangements recalling Richard Carpenter’s work, are tender tunes such as “Luckiest Mood,” “Forever Home,” and “Did I Catch You Dreaming.” Echoes of Karen Carpenter, Doris Day, Aimee Mann, and Sam Phillips (the underrated female singer-songwriter) trickle through the album, but clearly, it’s Nellie’s game.

But edgier twists also sneak into the picture on the album, such as on “The Party Song” — opening with the line “I went to a party, stayed there 20 years one night” and closing with “may that party burn to the fucking ground” — and with a verse swerving into the subject of Hiroshima and wartime ethics. The character in “Imitation” is an emotionally numbed abuse victim. Most startlingly, the album closes with “Make a Wish,” the closest thing to a rock-song-meets-punk-folk-rap, on the subject of the epic sweep of tragedy in Black life in America, and a darkly comic plot twist involving Jeffrey Dahmer.

Suffice to say, serious and satirical forces rumble beneath the pretty, bubbly surfaces in the musical world of McKay. Get thee to SOhO with ears, heart, and mind open.


This weekend, mariachi of a high order is on tap thanks to the ever-inspiring ¡Viva el Arte de Santa Bárbara! series, hosting a return visit from the stellar Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles, the first all-female mariachi group. Other woman-powered Mariachi bands have followed suit, breaking through the once male-dominated field. Catch this sharp and sharply-dressed (Mariachi’s dress code demands it) group free of charge in performance at Isla Vista School on Friday, Guadalupe City Hall on Saturday, and the climactic Sunday evening finale in the wondrous Marjorie Luke Theatre on Sunday.
Head over to Hahn Hall on Friday night for the first Camerata Pacifica show of the new year. The program is a healthy mix of standard fare, and otherwise — to the tune of Brahms and Mendelssohn, but also French-Slovenian composer Vinko Globokar and Greek composer Christos Hatzis’ Fertility Rites, for Five Octave Marimba and Tape, with a spotlight on CamPac’s gifted percussionist Ji Hye Jung.

On Saturday and Sunday at the Granada Theater, the Santa Barbara Symphony season joins the 2024 concert onramp with the operatic program Ride of the Valkyries: Opera at the Symphony (see story here).

Josef Woodard www.independent.com Arts & Entertainment,ON the Beat

2024-01-19 16:53:21 , The Santa Barbara Independent

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