Baby Dee Safe Inside The Day

[Drag City; 2008]

Styles: high camp, vaudeville, soul bearing
Others: Antony, Tiny Tim, Joanna Newsom

Vocalists practicing extended techniques or possessing unique tonal qualities invite upon themselves an unjust level of criticism, even from those who actively consider themselves listeners of the avant-garde. Oftentimes, an artist's works will receive nothing more than a dismissive wave of the hand, and such can be the case when considering Baby Dee. Her expressive voice, cast with a trembling vibrato reminiscent of the elder lead soprano of a church choir -- and, to some measure, that wonder of yore, Miss Miller -- is an undeniably polarizing instrument. Vocal-based biases, however, should not serve to deprive anyone of such a distinctive artist.

Dee has remarked that she felt the recordings comprising Safe Inside The Day were taking her into ugliness, and only through the encouragement of Will Oldham did she choose not to abandon this direction. Compared to her previous recordings on Durtro, a grittier surface is certainly revealed. Dee's warble on occasion even finds itself flinching beneath the garish weight of instrumental filigree provided by Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Matt Sweeney among others. The beauty remains within, however, and no amount of tattered curtain and broken furniture could possibly detract from the greater effect.

The closest reference point to Safe Inside The Day can be found in the vaudevillian and theatrical works of past outsiders. Dramatics naturally find root within Dee's vocal phrasings and piano gestures, especially on the raucous shuffle of "The Earlie King" (with lyrics of "spill the milk, steal the meat, life is bitter and death is sweet, all the bacon that a boy can eat") and "The Only Bones That Show" (with a narration of "and I talk in tongues of blood and bite"). Each track highlights Dee's delivery as both varied and captivating. It's hard to ignore the specific point of reference from which she is creating, which can also be a polarizing aspect of the album.

Aside from the greater degree of dramatics, it's the bookending tracks, "You'll Find Your Footing" and the title track, that showcase Dee at her most delicate and ultimately most engaging. With the additional musicians withdrawing to the background, her vocals and piano playing are left to perform the lion's share of the work, helping achieve a more profound effect. Her talent is so individualistic that anyone in her presence can feel like an extra in what is essentially a one-artist play. This is not a discredit to the musicians on play here; it's a credit to Dee's talent.

Dee invests her lyrics with personal references that fill out to the corner of each word, yet they remain open enough for personal interpretation. Her vulnerability is laid bare. Artists revealing to this degree should never be thought of in small terms; they take the greatest risk by daringly placing their lives before us to dissect and pontificate upon. What Baby Dee offers the listener lyrically and vocally on Safe Inside The Day should rightfully make many a songwriter blush beneath the weight of their own posturing.

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