Baby Dee Regifted Light

[Drag City; 2011]

Styles: art brut(e), cabaret, neofolk, sacred, singer-songwriter, snowed in
Others: Marc Almond, Antony and the Johnsons, Joanna Newsom, Moondog, Tiny Tim

The liminal figure — the boundary-trangressing identity outlaw — is sometimes spurned, but often reverenced as an intermediary, a sha(wo)man, a figure whose traumatic lack of belonging allows them to form a bridge to sacred and transcendent realms while at the same time retaining the character of the taboo. Commenting on Jean-Paul Sartre’s book-length essay Saint Genet — the eponymous subject is a figure who perhaps more than any other created an overturned personal universe of queered morality in which the abjected outsider becomes a hammered and imprisoned saint, a Lady of the Flowers — Susan Sontag describes Sartre’s writing as “having a quality that is clotted and ghostly.” We might say the same of the music of Baby Dee. Speaking of sexual dissidents, I hesitated over Dee’s “others” (and indeed, isn’t the experience of listening the becoming of the performer’s ultimate, unreachable other?). But while I’m loath to stereotype a lineage of genderqueering outsiders from Jayne County through transfatty, acid-tongued Divine, Sopor Aeternus’ Anna-Varney, and Antony Hegarty, the thematic connections here — lyrical or sonic — are not to be denied. Further, like Hegarty, Dee’s recording career was championed by Current 93’s David Tibet on his Durtro label (with Will Oldham, another early fan and previous collaborator).

In similar fashion to the above-mentioned icons, Dee’s voice is a central and unique element: quavering, breathy, sweet, cackling, solemn, a multi-faceted discursive instrument all to itself. But on Regifted Light (recorded in three snowbound days at Dee’s home in Cleveland, Ohio), most of the tracks are instrumentals, constantly transmuting piano ballads reminiscent of Tori Amos circa Under The Pink/Boys For Pele. They’re coupled throughout with military drums, glockenspiel and playful strings, brass and woodwind hinting of tin soldiers. And, piling outsider upon outsider, unexpected ambiguity upon — well, you catch my drift — the album is produced by longtime collaborator Andrew W.K. and performed on his Steinway and Sons model D (geddit?) concert grand. However, we see no glimpse of the self-caricaturing party animal of I Get Wet — rather, we’re ushered into Dee’s presence by the classically-trained pianist and atmospheric instrumentalist of 55 Cadillac.

Themes of childhood, and of the intertwining of the formally sacred (particularly the hymn) with the polymorphously perverted profane, remain fundamental to Dee’s vision. But where 2008’s Safe Inside The Day was a Bradbury-esque, Bakhtinian carnival (an environment with which Dee has not been unfamiliar in her métierical rise), Regifted Light is a music box — albeit the ballerina’s springs creak a little oddly as she pops up to dance, the moonlight glinting on the contents gives them a slightly surreal quality — and those marks on the felt, are they bloodstains or pie juice?

Dee’s lyrics consistently reveal a formidable intelligence and a deep and deeply-felt cultural repertoire, but the closest we approach to the wicked humor of Safe Inside The Day’s “Big Titty Bee Girl (From Dino Town)” or “The Only Bones That Show” is on the scarily voracious, bathetic, pathetic “The Pie Song” (with any other performer, I’d suspect a double entendre, but in Dee’s case the literal reading seems just as debauched); and while death is a constant presence, there is nothing here to match the dread of “The Earlie King.” The instrumentals are by turns dramatic and subtle (the opening track, the memorably-titled “Cowboys with Cowboy Hat Hair,” is a particular highlight), but at times the second tendency is a crumb over-predominant, leaving the music to fade into the ambient background. Such a background, though, sets off the vocal tracks like paste — or pastie — gems. And between the ballads and hymns (sometimes close to literal: Jesus is an ambiguous presence on both the title track and the lowly, optimistic centerpiece, “Brother Slug and Sister Snail”), tender instrumentals, and moments of infantile oral fixation, Dee seems to be approaching some kind of reconciliation between the church organist (true story) of earlier recordings, and the damaged, wisecracking chanteuse of Safe Inside The Day.

For my part, I prefer the latter. But, as perhaps with any artistic exploration of the intimate relationship between the muckily earthbound (not so much shawoman as charwoman) and the transcendent, what we’re concerned with here is the transmutation of lead to gold and back again (echoes of another Dee), until we can only characterize the alloy so formed as permutative. Translated thus, the shifting mires of a performative and literal alterity form perhaps our Dee-va’s truest incarnation.

Links: Baby Dee - Drag City

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