Nellie McKay covers a lot of territory on her debut, Get Away From Me, none of it as pleasant as her sunny voice makes it sound. To a casual listener, "Won't U Please B Nice," one of 18 original tracks, sounds like a credible attempt at a modern song in the mold of a golden-age standard. Listen closely, and it sounds demented, with McKay adding a growl to her voice to show she means business as she promises a slit throat (or worse) to a lover who fails to meet an increasingly narrow standard of niceness.
McKay carries herself with the attitude of someone who's had piano bars at her feet her entire life. In her songs, gin pops up as a supporting character, sensitive men get dismissed as sex-crazed poseurs, and a celebration of marriage comes loaded with sarcastic references to reading Danielle Steel. (Dogs, on the other hand, receive unreserved praise.) She uses her jazz training as a foundation for exploration of chamber pop, reggae, and hip-hop, usually successfully. Often, Get Away From Me sounds like the work of someone with decades of experience getting one shot to try every idea she's ever had.
It's probably worth mentioning, then, that McKay is only 19, especially since her best trick is playing her prodigious talent for songwriting and world-weariness against a pixyish pluck. On the cover, she looks so inviting and bright that it's easy to overlook the titular warning (a jab at another young singer's debut) and the parental-advisory label. Both are an indication of what's to come on an album that mixes humor and anger, heartbreak and hopefulness with the intoxicating sloppiness of a bartender who's had a few on the sly.
On "Ding Dong," the death of a cat becomes the occasion for morbid introspection and maybe a shot at a better life, if drinking doesn't get in the way. Slow service leads into a moment to contemplate the latest Gulf War and a failing romance on "Waiter." It's a daring way to conflate the personal and the political, and like most of McKay's dares (apart from her attempt at rap), it pays off. Traditionally, a vocalist's first efforts contain suggestions of more mature work to come, but with McKay, the best stuff comes from a stubborn willingness to try anything. With luck, she has the good sense to hold on to her lack of good sense.