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

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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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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

Nellie McKay is a prolific pop singer known for her independent streak. It's probably safe to say that even some of her fans may be startled by her new album, a tribute to Doris Day called �Normal As Blueberry Pie,� featuring songs they recorded along with one McKay original.

But one fan of McKay's, rock critic Ken Tucker, is charmed and appreciative.

(Soundbite of the song, �The Very Thought Of You�)

Ms. NELLIE MCKAY (Singer): (Singing) The very thought of you and I forget to do the little ordinary things everyone ought to do. I'm living in a kind of daydream. I'm happy as a queen, and foolish though it may seem, to me that's everything.

KEN TUCKER: 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 solid chunk of work lifted by lightness and delicacy. McKay's phrasing is often airy but never airheaded. 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.

(Soundbite of song, �Crazy Rhythm�)

Ms. MCKAY (Singer): (Singing) Crazy rhythm, here's the doorway, I'll go my way, you'll go your way. Crazy rhythm, from now on, we're through. Here is where we have a showdown, I'm too high hat, you're too low down. Crazy rhythm, here's goodbye to you. They say that when a highbrow meets a lowbrow, walking along Broadway, soon the highbrow, he has no brow, ain't it a shame and you're to blame. What's the use of prohibition, you produce the same condition. Crazy rhythm, I've gone crazy too. Now everything...

TUCKER: 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 are 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.

(Soundbite of song, �Sentimental Journey�)

Ms. MCKAY (Singer): (Singing) Gonna take a sentimental journey, gonna set my heart at ease. Gonna make the sentimental journey to renew old memories. Got my bags, got my reservations, spent each dime I could afford. Like a child in wild anticipation, long to hear that all aboard. Seven, that's the time we leave at seven. I'll be waiting up for heaven, counting every mile of railroad track that takes me back.

TUCKER: That's Nellie McKay performing one of Doris Day's biggest hits. 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. 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 Nellie McKay sings it, you can hear the undertow of dread and bliss beneath the beauty.

(Soundbite of song, �I Remember You�)

Ms. MCKAY (Singer): (Singing) I remember you, you're the one who made my dreams come true. A few kisses ago, I remember you. You're the one who said I love you, too. I do, didn't you know? I remember, too.

TUCKER: 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.

(Soundbite of song, �Do Do Do�)

Ms. MCKAY (Singer): (Singing) Oh, do, do, do what you've done, done, done before, baby. Do, do, do what I do, do, do adore, baby. Let's try again, sigh again, fly again to heaven. Baby, see, it's A, B, C, I love you and you love me...

TUCKER: 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.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed �Normal as Blueberry Pie,� by Nellie McKay. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.