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Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2004

Camping out


Camp was cool this year. Freddie Mercury was the most revered dead-pop-star role model, and many up-and-coming rock acts indulged in what Susan Sontag once called "the love of the exaggerated," whether it was Franz Ferdinand's metrosexual take on new wave or the Scissor Sisters' Studio 54 appropriation of classic rock.

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Traditionally a staple of cabaret music, camp has now found appreciation in the rock world. Stephen Merritt, who has been peddling a unique species of clever pop songcraft in his indie group the Magnetic Fields for almost a decade, enjoyed a larger audience with their major label debut, "i." Like a good nightclub set, "i" has the appeal of a clever stunt. All the songs begin with the letter "I" (usually in the form of the first-person singular pronoun) and are presented in Merritt's forlorn vocal style and arrangements for a small combo. Often compared to Cole Porter, Merritt shares Porter's obsession with love as the only fit subject for a pop song and so explores "every type of love," from the sacred to the profane, but with a knowing wink to the guy in the back standing at the bar by himself.

But the year's winner of the cabaret-to-rock crossover award goes to Nellie McKay, a singer-pianist who was supposedly only 19 when she recorded her debut, "Get Away From Me." Discovered playing at piano bars and gay clubs in New York, McKay piles on the witty bon mots in shovelfuls and alters her delivery to suit the subject, cooing like Doris Day, barking like Liza Minnelli or even rapping like . . . well, no one you ever heard of. At first, the Parental Advisory sticker on the CD cover seems like an overreaction, but Cole Porter, a camp libertine to the bones, would have understood.



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