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January/February 2008

Nellie McKay
Obligatory Villagers
Hungry Mouse

Does size matter? It certainly seemed to back in 2005, when Nellie McKay became embroiled in a headline-grabbing brouhaha with Columbia Records over the length of her sophomore release, Pretty Little Head. She wanted a 23-track, 65-minute, double-disc set. The label wanted a comparatively trim 16 tracks that clocked in at 48 minutes. (The double album, with all 23 tracks intact, was ultimately released on her own label, Hungry Mouse.) So, it seems somewhat ironic that McKay’s third album contains a scant nine tracks (10 if purchased through iTunes) that total a slender 31 minutes.

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Amy T. Zielinski

Nellie McKay

Truth is, though, with McKay size doesn’t matter, as long as her fearless outspokenness, potty-mouthed subversiveness and genre-blurring audaciousness remain intact, as they do throughout Obligatory Villagers. McKay’s opening gambit—a smoky cabaret number called “Mother of Pearl” that kittenishly opines “feminists don’t have a sense of humor” while drunken misogynists add catcall support—is an astounding exercise in tongue-in-cheek barnstorming. Next, Bob Dorough climbs onboard for the slyly politicized cheerleader cry “Oversure.” Dorough later returns for “Galleon,” a shrewd, chanting condemnation of the lingering high school mentality that filters from the White House on down into too many strata of contemporary society, and is also on hand for the mockingly prayer-like “Politan.”

All such numbers (plus the exploration of persistent Deep South attitudes hinted at in “Zombie”) are unquestionably thought-provoking. But, the unyielding backbone of Obligatory Villagers is most archly shaped by the complementary tracks “Identity Theft,” a fiery rage against the suppression of free expression, and “Testify,” which challenges all us villagers to regain our protestor voices.

Originally published in January/February 2008
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