Filed under: album, review | Tags: 2009, doris day, matt barton, music, nellie mckay
Normal As Blueberry Pie: A Tribute To Doris Day ••••
An album of Doris Day covers may sound like a puzzling prospect in 2009, but it makes perfect sense when the tribute comes from someone as oblivious to the demands of modern pop conventions as singer-songwriter and pianist Nellie McKay. A long-time champion of the underrated icon, London-born but American-based McKay wrote of Day in the New York Times in 2007, “What she possessed – beyond her beauty, physical grace, and natural acting ability – was a resplendent voice that conveyed enormous warmth and feeling.” Fortunately, a resplendent voice is exactly what McKay shares with Day, and it is that which steals the show throughout the staggeringly accomplished Normal As Blueberry Pie, the fourth album in an increasingly interesting career. McKay may only be 27 but her voice is mature and rich beyond her years, with just the warmth and feeling she so admired in Day, gliding effortlessly between notes with impeccable phrasing that perfectly conveys the mood of the lyrics.
The song choices mostly steer clear of Day’s more recognisable hits, with the languorous ‘Sentimental Journey’ perhaps the best known, but all play to McKay’s strengths and showcase her diversity as a vocalist and song interpreter. Opener ‘The Very Thought Of You’ is a gorgeous, jazzy ode to an object of affection and gets a sparse but effective arrangement with McKay taking sole duties on piano, organ and bells, her classic voice sitting smoothly on top. Her take on the Gershwin standard ‘Do Do Do’ is similarly classic sounding, studded with pianos and horns, while the Rodgers & Hammerstein number ‘Wonderful Guy’ benefits from a slightly darker mood and an understated vocal. The ukulele-dominated ‘Meditation’ is four minutes of hushed reverie, McKay’s breathy vocal accentuated by the languid horns that enter around the two-minute mark and quickly followed by woodwinds. The Bacharach & David standard ‘Send Me No Flowers’ also boasts some sublime horns, alternately mournful and optimistic alongside the main ukulele melody.
A perhaps unexpected jewel of the album is McKay’s own ‘If I Ever Had A Dream’, the sole original here. Brilliantly imaginative yet with a timeless quality, it could easily pass for one of the standards McKay sings elsewhere. The frenetic piano jazz of ‘Close Your Eyes’ is another triumph with a sultry, lazy vocal from McKay, and then there’s the haunting ‘Black Hills Of Dakota’, which exudes sheer class with an exotic opening and slow, atmospheric arrangement as McKay sings of “the beautiful Indian country that I love”. Not all the material is quite as elegant; ‘Crazy Rhythm’ and ‘Dig It’ are two of the album’s most upbeat numbers but also two of the corniest. They’re silly, but they’re fun. And if we’re being honest, it wouldn’t be true to Day if there wasn’t a little corniness at work.
Few artists could spin Doris Day’s whiter than white image into an album as intriguing, diverse and wonderfully rich as Normal As Blueberry Pie (and fewer would even attempt it), so it’s a mark of McKay’s imagination and skill that this album is every bit as appetising as its titular dessert. It’s a tribute not only to Doris Day, whose handsome vocals have long been underrated by the music press at large, but also to the writers of these standards. The songs sound rejuvenated and alive without attempting to be especially modern – both normal and exceptional – and it really works.
UK release date: 19/10/09; www.myspace.com/nelliemckay
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