Nellie McKay's 'Blueberry Pie,' A Tribute to Doris Day

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Singer Nellie McKay i

"I was initially attracted to her optimism and gaiety" says McKay of Doris Day. "Her approach to life is irresistible." Nellie McKay hide caption

itoggle caption Nellie McKay
Singer Nellie McKay

"I was initially attracted to her optimism and gaiety" says McKay of Doris Day. "Her approach to life is irresistible."

Nellie McKay

Every time Nellie McKay releases a new album, I think, this is exactly the kind of music that, if it came from anyone else, I'd find arch, fluffy, coy, and irritating. Yet McKay is batting a thousand with me: her Doris Day tribute is eccentric yet utterly disarming, a strong chunk of work lifted by lightness and delicacy. McKay's phrasing is often airy but never air-headed. She presents herself as a willful eccentric but the control she maintains with her soaring high notes and conversational phrasing is the work of a meticulous artist.

McKay's admiration for Doris Day should not come as a surprise. Both have presented public images that are cheerful and plucky. Neither are afraid to smile and act happy-go-lucky when all around them, people were frowning and worried. Both are underrated. Day's novelty pop hits and her sillier romantic comedies with Rock Hudson have for many people obscured her fine, dexterous big-band vocalizing. For McKay, her simple lack of great commercial success, along with her refusal to over-decorate her music with extravagant phrasing in the American Idol manner, have kept her a cult artist. On this album, Day and McKay are an unbeatable team, sisters in bright-eyed intelligence.

One of the few truly melancholy songs on this collection is McKay's version of "I Remember You." Written for the 1942 movie The Fleet's In, its Johnny Mercer lyric is, on one level, a lovely hymn to death, as the singer speaks of a time angels ask her "to recall/the thrill of it all," and she turns her attention to her lover, saying simply, "I remember you." The way McKay sings it, you can hear the undertow of dread and bliss beneath the beauty.

Among pop artists aware of how covering pre-rock music is perceived by a post-rock audience, McKay is like a young Bette Midler without the irony; like a Tiny Tim without the camp; a Rufus Wainwright without the campy irony. McKay can choose the George and Ira Gershwin song "Do Do Do" and you never have to worry that she's going to reduce the song's playful triple-repetitions of key words to mere novelty.

The one song not associated with Doris Day here, "If I Ever Had a Dream," was written by McKay, and it emphasizes the success of this entire enterprise. The last thing Nellie McKay is is Normal as Blueberry Pie. But listening to her, she lets you share a desire to be as normal as blueberry pie yourself. It's both impossible and wonderful to contemplate, a combination that courses through every song on this album.

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