Nellie McKay is a throwback to an earlier era in American music, and not merely because of her retro-esque fashion sense. Once upon a time, singers were singers, not quite as rigidly affixed to “genre” as today. In the 1950s, Tony Bennett recorded the elder Hank Williams‘ “Cold, Cold Heart,” along with jazz and pop standards. Dinah Washington cut a tribute album to ’20s blues icon Bessie Smith and struck pop-immortality gold with “What A Difference A Day Made.” Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, and Frankie Laine weren’t, strictly speaking, “jazz singers,” but jazz decisively impacted their respective approaches.
McKay’s has an airy, mellifluous warble (reminiscent of Mildred Bailey and occasionally Sade), and on Home Sweet Mobile Home she applies it to a smorgasbord of style. “Caribbean Time” is smooth reggae, and it shimmers like a sunset on a sweltering day — and fortunately, she doesn’t bend over backward to capture or emulate classic Jamaican styles. “Dispossessed” is a jaunty, ever-so-slightly raggedy ‘n’ hokey New Orleans strut with McKay’s tone subtly displaying the influence of Billie Holiday. The sultry, idyllic “Coosada Blues” is an amalgam of doo-wop and Southern R&B, and “No Equality” could be a lost slice of Al Green or Gamble-Huff Philly soul, balancing as it does uptown Saturday night elegance and Soul Train groove. The songs are eloquent and concise, and the lyrics of multi-instrumentalist McKay convey sophisticated (and occasionally surreal) drollness with a cool that both Dean Martin and Lulu might admire. While Home deftly juggles styles from many eras, it is a modern — possibly timeless — gem. (Verve Forecast)