Baby Dee wriggled her way into my radar thanks to a friend who sings her praises pretty regularly, and I hadn’t listened to much (mostly stories, descriptions, folklore-style biographies) until this week, when I got my hands on her upcoming Drag City release, Safe Inside the Day (more here).
Baby Dee’s music is a bizarre but addictive sort of burlesque show meets contemplative piano bar sort of thing, and her voice is one of the most challenging and interesting I’ve heard in a while. “I was born in Cleveland Ohio. This album is very much about the street I grew up on. Where The Earlie King ruled without mercy. And Bobby Slot and Freddy Weiss invented the Dance of Diminishing Possibilities,” she writes on her web site. “The inside is bigger than the outside, more important, and less destructible. ‘Many mansions’ and all that. Kingdom of god. I love everybody.”
Dee is an incredible harpist and accordion player, but this album is very focused on the piano and voice … “Fresh Out of Candles” in particular plays with this really fantastic backup singer bit, the gently cooing supporters (actually, it just sort of sounds like two or three more Baby Dees) support center stage with near-harmony, a kind of listless agreement that falls on and off pitch, dropping off into the shadows again and again, then rising to the occasion as if suddenly interested in supporting the song title’s delivery (and accompanying tale). Fragile strings emerge and the voices reappear once more, and about two thirds of the way through the tune, you realize you’re listening to this great blues song, the guitar and drums are completely there, layered with Dee’s voice alternating between forceful and soaring and softly reminiscent, strings, shadowy background singers … the entire piece is just this brilliant little chasm of conflicting moments and parts.
Which is almost the only way to talk about Dee’s music, life, voice, etc. in general … having lived on the streets, sung in church, lived on the streets again, returned to music … on and on. But Dee’s charm is her unaffected old-world piano pop affections, and the contrast between that world and her place here in this world, recording albums with Will Oldham, Matt Sweeney, Antony, James Lo, etc. Her songs are perfect ornaments that complete and order themselves, presenting like tightly wrapped gift of a reasonable but not overwhelming weight. They are solid, but gentle, urgent but reflective, challenging but not alienating … they provide her voice with a perfect landscape to flex and laugh and tell her tales (both personal and universally metaphoric) at will.
And then, sometimes, she’s quiet, as with “Flowers on the Tracks,” and I can’t quite wrap my brain around the feeling such incredible, beautiful playing gives. I wait for her voice to utter something throughout the entire song … though I’ve listened several times through at this point … it points and leads me each time like it was the first. I can’t recommend this record enough, do look for it in January, and go see her perform, everything I’ve read indicates that is the optimal situation.