When Nellie McKay set out to create My Weekly Reader, she wanted to revisit songs made popular in the ’60s and early ’70s. She put together a wry, political statement that’s also the perfect recipe for a lazy summer day in 96/24. This odd collection of one-hit wonders and slightly obscure tunes works with McKay’s quirky voice and fabulous acoustic orchestrations blended together to set a tone that’s both whimsical and wise. From The Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” to Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Wooden Ships,” this album delights across the board.
Reuniting with McKay after 10 years is famed Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick; he produced her debut album, Get Away From Me, over a decade ago in 2004. My Weekly Reader is Nellie McKay’s sixth album, although it’s not her first of covers and tributes. This mostly of-the-’60s collection follows her homage to Doris Day, Normal as Blueberry Pie (2009).
Although only 32 years old, McKay was drawn to the political activism of the ’60s, but also remembers listening to the songs covered here on the 8-track player in her mom’s VW van. Luckily, I was able to listen to My Weekly Reader with a pair of Sennheiser headphones via a high-res 96/24 WAV download from HDtracks. This album just begs to be listened to under a beach umbrella by the waves.
Reader kicks off with The Kinks’ aforementioned “Sunny Afternoon,” complete with honky-tonk piano and Nellie’s backup band — Cary Park on guitars, Bob Glaub on bass, and David Raven on drums — but her own piano work is the true standout here. Listen to her vamping away in the background of the bridge — someone sure had a good time in the studio with this one. But what’s truly brilliant is knowing when to lay off, as that element stops after the last verse until the very end of the song.
The technicality of the recording shows in her take on Steve Miller Band’s “Quicksilver Girl.” Not a real popular song (though you may recall hearing it in The Big Chill), the sparseness of the recording shines. In the bridge, all you can hear is Nellie’s doubled vocal with just a touch of ambience. No gimmicks, and nothing overly processed. Reaching back to his early roots, Emerick panned the guitar hard left, with an accent guitar panned hard right and the bass dead center. This is just exceptional recording.
“Poor People / Justice,” from the cult-favorite movie O Lucky Man! (1973), is the first hint of Nellie’s chops on the marimba. The album’s only song (actually, a medley) from the ’70s is a crazy tropical treat, with the political sting that’s oft-present in reggae from that era. That said, hearing her sweet soprano singing about injustice takes some getting used to.
“Murder in My Heart for the Judge” is another heavy political hitter and a classic Moby Grape original, complete with a jail-door sound effect for the intro. Béla Fleck’s banjo can be heard early in the song, albeit mixed too far back for my taste. Using the banjo in such an angry song is interesting, as mixed over Nellie’s political scatting improvisation. She touches upon everything from The Declaration of Independence to a shouted “power to the people” and “give peace a chance” to a whispered “I can’t breathe.” Nothing subtle about this track.
The rolling disquiet of Richard and Mimi Fariña’s “Bold Marauder” (Mimi was Joan Baez’s sister — who knew!) is completely enhanced by the discordant marimbas played by McKay. This song, while seeming to praise murder and pillage, truly protests the spoils of war, be it The Crusades or current conflicts. This song was relevant in the ’60s, and it hasn’t lost any of its power today.
Who won’t burst into a smile listening to Nellie’s version of Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park,” especially her joyous organ performance? Anyone seeing her perform it live will be in for a real treat. Listen to this one over headphones to truly appreciate the swirling phasing effect to make this a real trip.
Equally joyous is Nellie’s ukelele and marimba performance on “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” a No. 1 hit for Herman’s Hermits in 1965. She convincingly mimics vocalist Peter Noone’s British accent perfectly — if you didn’t know otherwise, you would swear this London-born Manhattanite spent her whole life in Great Britain. Without even a touch of irony, she flawlessly delivers the line, “Girls as sharp as her are something rare.” (Would that sentiment ever fly today?)
Switching to a more electric, totally groovy sound is “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine,” Country Joe’s tribute to a legendary San Francisco drug dealer, with yet another fabulous organ performance.
Producer Geoff Emerick really shows his chops when he revisits “If I Fell,” as he was in on the original Beatles recording. The track is simple and clean, opening with just guitar and Nellie’s solo voice, but then joined in with her harmonizing with the same notes sung by the original lads. Hers is truly a delightful rendition of this song, especially with the subtle addition of vibraphone in the final notes.
There’s some speculation that the Dylanesque harmonica addition to “Red Rubber Ball” is a jab at the discord between Bob Dylan and songwriter Paul Simon back in the day. It feels more like the wacky inspiration that weaves in and out of all the songs on My Weekly Reader. The harmonica and flute feel as natural as ever in this classic that never quite made it to the #1 spot on the U.S. charts (The Cyrkle got as far as No. 2 with it in 1966). I do love the open-mic capture of the band’s chatting at the end of the song.
Nellie’s syncopated marimbas opening Gerry and The Pacemakers’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” is beautifully poignant, along with clarinet and xylophone. This achingly simple song is another gorgeous recording, with Nellie’s voice left clean and pure.
A bit of studio magic happened during the recording of “Hungry Freaks, Daddy,” originally by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. Turns out Nellie and the band started recording this album at Winslow Court Studios, but got kicked out because the studio had been previously booked by Zappa’s son, Dweezil. When Dweezil heard they were planning to record one of his dad’s songs, he offered to play guitar on it. His screaming solo is truly amazing, although interestingly mix in with Nellie’s own wailing organ and marimba improvs at almost equal levels. The ending of this song is just fun, raucous, musical chaos.
Marimbas also open the album’s last cut, Crosby, Stills & Nash’s version of “Wooden Ships,” written by Stephen Stills, David Crosby, and Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner. It’s an interesting choice, as the marimbas don’t really flow easily into the rest of the track. They’re mixed hauntingly low throughout the song but come back with a dark, mysterious tone in the bridge. This is a rich, interesting arrangement that will stay with you long after the album is over.
My Weekly Reader showcases the quirky, satirical artistry that is Nellie McKay, but more importantly, it shows what a diverse and incredibly talented musician she is. While some of these songs and arrangements are whimsical and almost silly, she deserves some serious kudos for this collection — and more than just weekly.