Thursday, November 02, 2006

Music Review: Badly Drawn Boy - "Born in the U.K.", Nellie McKay - "Pretty Little Head" -- A Tale of Two Pop Albums

Badly Drawn Boy - "Born in the U.K."

Badly Drawn Boy (i.e. Damon Gough's) new work, "Born in the U.K." (in an obvious ode to Springsteen's effort to wrestle with what's bad and good about America) is a decent little album. At it's best, it's some of his best songcrafting, but the opening track is awful, with a pretentious earnestness that's irritating, even for it's 1+ minute, as he asks questions in one channel, and answers them the other. The cheesiness quickly escapes after the first few seconds of the second track, "Born in the U.K.", which starts with a cheesy version of "God Save the Queen" (the attempt at pastiche falling a little short). But the song launches into a rollicking, enjoyable account of the negatives and pluses of living in England. After this, the songs vary in their quality - some are catchier than others, but the gap between the bad (especially "Welcome to the Overground") and the good ("Born in the U.K.", "Nothing's Going to Change Your Mind", "The Time of Times") on the album isn't severe. The worst songs aren't bad, but the best songs aren't revelatory, either, and while all of the songs are technically fine, they tend to get a little repetitive in sound by the end. At least on his last album "One Plus One Is One," Gough mixed up the slower pieces with the more pop-y songs to provide enough variation. Not so much here, unfortunately.

Ultimately, "Born in the U.K." is better than 2002's "Have You Fed the Fish?", but not as good as 2004's "One Plus One Is One." If you're a Badly Drawn Boy Fan, pick it up. And if you don't like it, as Gough himself says at the end of the album in "One Last Dance": "We'll still have 'Thunder Road'."

Nellie McKay - "Pretty Little Head"

Yes, it's another "double album" on the heels of her first "double album", but she's old-school - each disc is barely over a half hour. We're talking about double album like the 1960s, not like a double-disc set of two 70+minute discs (she's not Sufjan Stevens).

As for McKay's sound, it hasn't shifted much. She still has a the jazz-club voice and piano lines at the core of her music, combined with a healthy mix of bossa nova, pop, calypso, rock, and even rap (though nothing as aggressive as "Sari" from her first album), making it a very enjoyable blend. Not only this, we aren't dealing with another Norah Jones. Rather, McKay can cover the mundane ("Food," which is delightfully about food) as well as cute with serious topics(the opener, "Cupcake," about gay marriage, is so simple it's endearing without being pedantic). Additionally, the her lyrics separate her from the Norah Jones-Diana Krall school of "music for people who don't like music." She's willing to deal with actually substantive topics, endearingly (again, "Cupcake") as well as more darkly, particularly in "Mama & Me," which deals with the dysfunctional and dependent relationship between a pill-popping mother and her rebellious daughter (and this isn't some crappy treatment of the punk-pop "my parents don't understand me" songs). Overall, the McKay album is delightful, never losing its sound but offering enough in variation and lyrics to keep the momentum launched by "Cupcake."

Overall, these albums both emphasize that pop music can be and is a legitimate form of well-crafted music and expression. One is just a little more successful than the other.

Born in the U.K. - 3.5 square glasses

Pretty Little Head - 4.5 square glasses