Some musicians have a gift for consistency, and for turning out tight-knit, carefully considered albums that sacrifice risk for unified vision. Nellie McKay isn't one of those artists. Sometimes, that's a problem. There are probably listeners out there able to make it all the way through "Mama & Me"—a track deep into McKay's sophomore album, Pretty Little Head, that features McKay whining like a baby, segueing into a half-rapped tribute to motherly support, then making a suicide threat. But those people are probably in McKay's immediate family.
But inconsistency usually accompanies risk-taking, and there's plenty of that on Head, and behind the scenes of its creation. In fact, McKay's whole career plays like one big risk. Many blessed with her wit and pleasing voice wouldn't channel it into songs so out of step with this century that they sound like echoes from a '50s cabaret. Nor would they use those songs to wax about campus animal experimentation ("Columbia Is Bleeding") or gentrification ("The Big One"). McKay is a throwback in other ways, as well. Pretty Little Head was supposed to come out a year ago, but a squabble with her major-label home over whether it would debut at 16 or 23 tracks sent her packing on principle. Apparently no one told her that getting along to get ahead was how the music industry works. At this rate, she may never hear her songs on American Idol.
Was it worth the trouble? Mostly. Shed of a few tracks, Head would be a more top-to-bottom pleasing album, but it wouldn't be McKay's album. And the high points make silly whims like the I'm-a-kitty-cat indulgence "Pounce" worth enduring. Against a spiraling piano, McKay takes a soul inventory on "There You Are In Me," then shifts to deceptively breezy pop duets: "Beecharmer" (with Cyndi Lauper) and "We Had It Right" (with k.d. lang). There's no shortage of hidden depth here, right from the start. "Cupcake" bounces along so brightly that it only slowly reveals itself as a rallying cry for gay marriage. It's fitting that rebels driven by love would find a place in McKay's heart.