Nellie McKay does Doris Day

Nellie McKay’s Normal As Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day (Verve, CD and LP) is the unlikeliest delight of the year. Who’d have thought that the snarkmistress of Get Away from Me (her 2004 debut double-album, with its “Explicit Lyrics” label, downtown cool, and sharp-wit irony, to say nothing of the title’s savage slash at the then-raging darling, Norah Jones) could produce such gentle covers of hits once sung by the queen of wholesomeness?

And yet that’s what this is. Yes, there’s a whimsy to the arrangements (nobody these days could sing the lyrics to “Send Me No Flowers” straight-faced), but there’s no winking or nudging. McKay clearly has a feel, and a love, for these songs and the sensibility they reflect.

A few weeks ago, my friend and Stereophile colleague Michael Fremer went to a Jazz At Lincoln Center “listening party,” marking the album’s release, and I think it’s fair to say we were both a bit smitten by her charms. With her wavy blonde hair, broad smile, and polite shyness (whether real or feigned), she seemed a throwback to the ‘30s or ‘40s, a character that Carole Lombard might have played in a screwball comedy.

Besides talking about the album, she sang a couple of the tunes live, accompanying herself on a ukulele—such a pure, lovely voice. She clearly has the chops for this sort of music.

The album’s mix churns her voice through a weird, though slight processing (which, as she clearly displayed at the party, was entirely unnecessary). Still, her singing is so strong, the effect detracts little, and the engineering otherwise (by the estimable James Farber) is impressive and palpable. (The CD and LP were both mastered from a digital file; the latter sounds better than the former but not by much.)

Besides singing, McKay, who’s 27, co-produced the album (with her mother, actress Robin Pappas), arranged all but two of the 13 tracks, and plays eight instruments, usually a few of them (overdubbed, of course) at once. In some ways, the most swaying tunes are those where she plays all the instruments on the track: piano, organ, bells, and tambora on “The Very Thought of You,” and ukulele, bells, and mellotron on “Send Me No Flowers.”

Very nice with brandy, or hot chocolate, on a cold winter night.

Robert Deutsch's picture

Thanks, Fred, for bringing this to our attention. I listened to some of the excerpts, and it certainly sounds like a lovely recording. I'll have to get it. Also, listening to the beginning of "Sentimental Journey," I kept thinking that her singing reminds me of someone other than Doris Day. And then I had it: Marilyn Monroe! Do you agree?Bob

John in d.c.'s picture

A few months ago, I bought two stuffed Doris Day CDs (Golden Girl: Columbia Recordings 1944-1966) and "Day By Day/Day By Night" and, at their best, they are creamy, dreamy affairs. I'm not sure I'm ready for a tribute just yet. Still absorbing the real thing and comparing her to the other great female voices in American popular song. Will Friewald loved Doris Day, and if you love singing in this vernacular, jazz and otherwise, I guess you have to eventually come around to her. Same as you do with Bing Crosby, only more so. You have to reckon with their towering presence in fading and faded consciousnesses, and when you shed the skin of agitated youth and begin to seek out and luxuriate in more sophisticated, sensuous pleasures, the languid Doris Day -- not the perky chick in the mind's eye, but more a fur coat, cocktail and maybe even valium bundled loosely in the fireside warmth of her plush arrangements -- is a forgotten but, I believe now, mandatory stop on the way to some temporary p