March 24, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 91  

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Nellie McKay
Get Away From Me

Forget those Norah Jones comparisons — Nellie McKay is more like Fiona Apple with a devilish stick of cinnamon.

Both Apple and McKay, at age 19, released their angry, jazz-inflected pop debuts: stunningly mature albums that capture the loneliness of walking through autumn in New York. But that’s where the similarities end.

Whereas Apple tends to muse mostly about her chaotic relationships, McKay uses the 18-track Get Away From Me to tackle animal rights, feminism and yuppie-dom’s political apathy through vivid storytelling, irony and cabaret-style show tunes.

There is little McKay doesn’t do: she sings, scats, plays piano, organ, recorder, xylophone and glockenspiel; she croons like she was born in 1950, raps like Eminem and adds whoops and panting for humourous decoration; she’ll sing on the sidewalk, sing in the rain and throw in “Die, motherfucker!” to keep things honest.

That juxtaposition of naiveté and wit, pleasantness and horror, is perfected on tracks like “Ding Dong,” a charming, lighthearted little ditty for skipping along to that leads to the lyrics, “Chop your head off/Be a lighter person/brighter person/Nicer/But you’ve heard it all before.” Even a song about being unable to turn that frown upside down elicits a grin.

Similarly, the Tin-Pan-Alley-esque “I Wanna Get Married” is classy dinner music with McKay crooning words that every manly man wants to hear: “I just want to bake/A sugar cake/For you to take/To work in the morn/And I’ll stay home cleaning the dishes/And keeping your wishes warm.” It’s sarcasm sung earnestly, which makes it even funnier.

And these days when what’s “funny” among 20-something starlets involves getting hitched in Vegas or getting dirty in front of a camera, McKay’s debut is a godsend. Her teasing is not for kicks, but to kick you out of complacency through song, dance and humour. And though the inviting Jones can elegantly seduce on Come Away With Me, McKay’s harsher, bolder and impulse-driven Get Away From Me ends up being more delightful.

—Brian Wong

Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Bonnie “Prince” Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music
Drag City

First off, it must be stated that this album is not at all what one would expect.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy is the current moniker for William Oldham, and it is used to express the musical aesthetic of a backwoods philosopher or world-weary traveller. His voice is that of a broken songbird — pure, warbling and sad. In another life, Oldham was the creative force behind the mythic Palace, an alt-country/rock outfit.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music is a re-working of some of Palace’s best tunes, but it doesn’t have the folky tinge of the new alias. Instead of taking alt-country and making them distinctively “Prince” Billy songs, the reworked versions of Palace’s old songs come out more country-tinged and gospel-infused, calling upon a stellar crew of stone-cold Nashville session players that includes legendary pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins.

Regardless of the somewhat misleading title of the album, it remains a fantastic morning listen — easy on the ears, yet truly engaging and beautiful.

—Jeremy Shaw

Eyedea & Abilities

Ironies abound on Eyedea & Abilities’ latest record, E&A.

The inside cover indicates that the disc is “low budget, high class.” It’s easy to spot the low budget reference; however, the irony comes with the high class claim. Add to that the fact the beats were produced by DJ Abilities, who fails to live up to his name, and what you have is a record that sounds like a demo tape — and a bad one at that.

It is one thing to sound like a basement recording produced with mediocre equipment, but if the lyrics are original and the beats are fresh the album stands a chance. Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned redeeming qualities are present on this album.

The background beats are choppy and inconsistent. The beat-boxing and scratching compete with lyrics instead of complementing them. Generous use of an electric guitar on one track sounds like the work of an over-enthusiastic six-year-old — one gets the impression the drummer can’t keep time properly.

Overall, E&A is a sophomoric effort.

—Idil Hersi

Xiu Xiu
Fabulous Muscles
5 Rue Christine

Jamie Stewart and his collaborators in the San Jose-based Xiu Xiu aren’t writing huge pop hooks (yet), but on their third record they mix some of their more organized constructions with a strong body of avant-garde tracks.

The songs on Fabulous Muscles are meditations on all those heart-warming subjects: longing, violence, familial dysfunction, death and abuse. It’s all told using a meticulously arranged selection of sounds — distorted guitars, industrial beats, eerie violin, among a palette of others — that focuses more on the quality of each individual strum, clank or screech than their collective cohesion into a familiar song pattern.

At times, the material is jarring. Graphic imagery leads off the industrial ambiance of “Support Our Troops OH!” a spoken-word piece in which a little girl’s head is blown off, while “Brian the Vampire” is a chaotic synth nightmare where Stewart’s fuzzed-out vocals cry for his friend to “run run run.”

At other times there is meek tenderness, like in “Little Panda McElroy” — a quiet poem about ending self-hatred for the love of another — or the title track, a quiet poem about some really un-sexy fellatio.

Yes, Xiu Xiu’s world is pretty fucked-up, but never does it end up as white noise. Instead, the noise is separated, filtered and given enough space to flex its dark, twisted and angry muscles.

—Brian Wong

The Bad Plus
Columbia Records

While it may worry some listeners to hear that certain CDs only include a handful of songs which actually include lyrics, it will downright frighten them to hear there are entire albums without a single word uttered.

Give, the second major album by this so-called “renegade trio,” is compiled of eight original instrumentals and three instrumentals that were covered from music’s greats. Such legendary inclusions are Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and Ornette Coleman’s “Street Woman.”

The Bad Plus is comprised of bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer David King. The band has been playing together since the mid-’80s. All their talent came to fruition when The Bad Plus released their first major album, These are the Vistas, and finally gained some recognition.

As for their newest album Give, the band admirably sticks with the type of music that got them to the top. And while it may sound like sheer noise to the untrained ear, jazz musicians everywhere will love their unique sounds.

Overall, The Bad Plus may not be the best way for a non-jazz lover to break into the world of jazz. However, for anyone out there craving the newest craze in jazz music, Give is the best way to go.

—Benjamin Mann



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