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Nellie McKay Celebrates The '60s With 'My Weekly Reader'


This is FRESH AIR. Nellie McKay's new album, "My Weekly Reader," is a collection of covers of songs made famous in the 1960s. The range of material is wide, from the Beatles's "If I Fell" to Frank Zappa's "Hungry Freaks, Daddy." Rock critic Ken Tucker says McKay never succumbs to mere nostalgia.


NELLIE MCKAY: (Singing) The taxman's taken all my dough and left me in my stately home lazin' on a sunny afternoon. And I can't sail my yacht. He's taken everything I've got. All I've got's this sunny afternoon.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Nellie McKay has always been a musician out of time, leaping back and forth across generations of pop songs with her own surprising unknowable motivations. She released a gorgeous album-long tribute to Doris Day in 2009 and her new one, "My Weekly Reader," finds her delving into hits and semi-obscurities from the Age of Aquarius.


MCKAY: (Singing) Don't let the sun catch you crying. The night's the time for all your tears. Your heart may be broken tonight, but tomorrow in the morning light don't let the sun catch you crying.

TUCKER: That's Nellie McKay's version of "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying," a hit for Gerry and the Pacemakers in 1964. McKay has worked on this album with Geoff Emerick, who also produced her debut album, but is most famous as the engineer for such Beatle albums as "Revolver" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." They approach this music without campiness, nostalgia or preciousness. It's a method that reframes and strengthens a bit of piffle, such as "Red Rubber Ball," a 1966 hit for one-hit wonders The Cyrkle.


MCKAY: (Singing) I should have known you'd bid me farewell. There's a lesson to be learned from this and I learned it very well. Now I know you're not the only starfish in the sea. If I never hear your name again, it's all the same to me. And I think it's gonna be all right. Yeah, the worst is over now. The morning sun is shining like a red rubber ball.

TUCKER: Nellie McKay is known to champion liberal progressive causes, which may have had a part in leading her to record new versions of Alan Price's "Poor People," Ray Davies's magnificently ironic lamentation of the idol-rich "Sunny Afternoon," and a version of Moby Grape's "Murder In My Heart For The Judge" that aligns McKay with some of the '60s radical slogans she tacks onto the end of it. As always on a McKay album, there's a pleasing tension between the content of the lyric and the lovely purity of her vocals, as can be heard on this version of a song from Richard and Mimi Farina, "Bold Marauder."


MCKAY: (Singing) It's hi, ho, hey, I am a bold marauder. And hi, ho, hey, I am the white destroyer. For I will show you silver and gold and I will bring you treasure. I will wave a widowing flag and I will be your lover. And I will show you grotto and cave and sacrificial alter. And I will show you blood on the stone and I will be your mentor. And night will be our darling and fear will be our name. It's hi, ho, hey, I am the bold marauder. And hi, ho, hey, I am white destroyer.

TUCKER: Perhaps no cut on this album is more surprising than "Hungry Freaks, Daddy." It's the song that led off the Mothers of Invention's 1966 debut album "Freak Out." To her credit, McKay's version drains off some of the cheesy, countercultural satire that curdles much of Frank Zappa's work.


MCKAY: (Singing) Mr. America, walk on by your schools that do not teach. Mr. America, walk on by the minds that won't be reached. Mr. America, try to hide the emptiness that's you inside. But once you find that the way you lied and the corny tricks you tried will not forestall the rising tide of hungry freaks, Daddy.

TUCKER: In researching this review, I came across an interview that McKay gave in 2010 in which she said, I just feel there's such a level of cynicism among our generation. I keep wanting it to go back to the '60s and I don't know how to do it. Well, with this album, I think she's figured it out.

BIANCULLI: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed at Nellie McKay's new album, "My Weekly Reader."


MCKAY: (Singing) If I fell in love with you, would you promise to be true and help me understand? Because I've been in love before and I found that love was more than just holding hands. If I give my heart to you, I must be sure from the very start that you would love me more than her. If I trust in you...

BIANCULLI: Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the newest movie from Marvel, "Avengers: Age Of Ultron." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.