On a rainy day, or an interminably long sunny day — a windy one — you might try huddling up to a new record called Safe Inside the Day, by the well-traveled and charismatic harp player, pianist, vaudevillian songwriter and utterly beguiling singer named Baby Dee.
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An angel, Madonna and leopard skin: quite a combo
This record, produced by Matt Sweeney and Bonnie "Prince" Billy, who also play on it, is an extraordinary, powerful thing, a lushly life-affirming, even, and very alternative cabaret-type work, both hilarious and poignant, and tragic, in its ornately drawn pictures of memories of the seedy side of life, from which we learn our greatest lessons and glean our most treasured gifts. Several people helped out to make its magic: Andrew W.K., Robbie Lee, Max Moston of Antony and the Johnsons, Bill Breeze of Psychic TV, John Contreras of Current 93, James Lo of Chavez, and Lia Kessel all play and/or sing on it. But in the midst of all these stars, there is one who shines the brightest: Baby Dee.
Baby Dee — in a past life, the circus performer and tree cutter from Cleveland — is a star who now struts the stage with both great campy humor and superbly tuned playing chops. Her music will always sound like something from another time and place — a better one — and if her reference points are a bit arcane ("Palestrina, Victoria and Morales. The Glogauer Liederbuch. And the Bach organ preludes. Harry Ruby"), they're also seemingly familiar.
The wonderful chords and progressions of "A Compass of the Light," and the glorious spareness of arrangement, make it hugely "compelling," as the book critics would say. And then there's this black-humored devil's dance called "The Earlie King," a great song, if only for the vividly picturesque feel of it. This Earlie King somehow looms large in Dee's legend, and she takes me back to school on it. "'The Earlie King' is based on the poem by Goethe. It's usually dismissed as spooky kid stuff, but I think it's much more scary than that. The real consequences that ensue from unreal and unidentifiable causes. The imaginary having a disastrous effect on the real. I find that terrifying."
A song like "Compass," for Dee, can come out of thin air, but not very often. It's all about the self, and our recollections of our selves, and how these revelations can sting.
"I had been reading about bees," she says, "and I had come to the end of the road with the person I had become. I wanted out of me. I took my bee book and went for a walk, all crazed and determined to disembark from the good ship me. My plan was to find a way to interact with my natural enemy, to befriend somebody who might possibly wish to harm me. I was afraid of young men at that time.
"There had been a few incidents, some close calls, some violence ... And my resentment toward the male gender had become so much a part of me that I didn't even know I had it. So I assumed — correctly, it turned out — that if I could disengage from that resentment, I could kiss my old self goodbye.
"So I see this young guy with a Cleveland Indians baseball cap and a dog, and I walked up to him, not having a clue what I'd say or do. I felt like a nut — like a Jehovah's Witness from hell ... 'Hello, I wanted to offer you this wonderful book. It's about bees.' And I went on to tell him about what wonderful creatures they were and the dances they do and how hard they work and how Socrates wished to be reincarnated as a bee. And he said, 'I don't read much myself, but my daughter might like it.'"
And that was it. It wasn't until she got home again that Dee realized the title of the book was The Queen Must Die. That was around the time that she decided to quit recording and become a tree climber.
"I totally left myself behind there. It was a good thing. It worked."
Baby Dee's voice may make you cry, a voice that's a very special instrument — one of those gender transcenders that artists such as, say, Antony, or Nina Simone way before him, used to such strangely deep-cutting effect. Dee's enunciation and phrasing are different, so precise and fine-edged — a comforting sound, somehow, in its benign metasexuality.