I recently read a movie review in a weekly Seattle newspaper that simply refused to pass any kind of judgment as to good or bad. The review was for Be Kind Rewind, the Michel Gondry film that blurs the boundaries between farcical comedy and surrealistic commentary on art in society. I respect that kind of review. Sometimes it’s difficult to find the exact direction of attack on a particular piece of entertainment or art. It’s like trying to find the exact compass bearing for leaving the island on Lost. Sometimes a piece of art can be appreciated, yet not loved, or disdained without being despised. As much as we critics hear, see and experience, we simply can’t experience everything. I’d assume that Be Kind Rewind is the type of film that gets an incredibly varied response. Metacritic reviews reveal that by showing scores as high as 88 and as low as 10. How do we see such different things in the same piece of work? This is yet another reason why Treble doesn’t employ a number rating system. Baby Dee’s new album, Safe Inside the Day, is just such an album that goes to support that very argument.
Half of understanding Baby Dee involves knowing just who she is, and even then things can get confusing. The situation doesn’t become any easier in describing Dee musically. An overly simplistic way of putting it finds her as a cross between Antony, Tom Waits and perhaps Ethel Merman. But again, things aren’t that simple. In researching her biography, the picture becomes all the more interesting, heartbreaking and muddied. The story starts in Cleveland, and somehow ends up there as well, like many of the best bildungsroman novels. She spent time as a musical director in a Catholic church in the Bronx, yet also as a `bilateral hermaphrodite’ in the circus (split down the middle, dressed one half as a man and the other as a woman). She’s been a fixture in New York street performing, and has been called a `transgender legend.’ But Dee, in her fifty plus years on Earth, has always made music. Her name wasn’t well known until a couple of guys that Treble readers would know well, Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney, asked Dee to open for Superwolf.
And thus, now we find Baby Dee on Drag City, the label that’s put out most of Oldham’s material over the last 15 years. To support this near anomaly of truly independent music, Dee is surrounded by a band of kindred souls including the aforementioned Oldham and Sweeney, Max Moston (of Antony’s band), William Breeze (Psychic TV), John Contreras (Current 93), James Lo (Chavez) and on drums, none other than Andrew WK. However, just looking at this indie all-star lineup will not even get you close to what Baby Dee’s sound has to offer. The truth is, people are either going to love or hate Baby Dee. Just like Be Kind Rewind, it’s all about personal taste and opinion. Dee warbles her intensely intimate poetry in such a way as to completely open herself up to attack. In that way, she’s like her friend and contemporary, Antony Hegarty. That kind of vulnerability can be both touching and powerful, yet her delivery will leave many traditional music fans in the cold.
Songs jump back and forth between the emotionally raw and the whimsically absurd, as from the delicate opening title track to the Tom Waits-esque “The Earlie King.” The one constant seems to be a beautiful blend of acoustic instruments (Dee is a master of the piano and harp) into vaudevillian, carnival, barroom and even lonely hotel lobby styles. Words and music combine in Dee’s world to form a bond so tight it’s as if they were never separate to begin with. And whether for good or bad, it’s Dee’s voice that will be the deciding factor in most listeners’ ears. There have been plenty of unique vocal stylings, especially throughout the last few years. Not everyone can get into Joanna Newsom, Antony or Tom Waits (though I REALLY don’t get why that’s the case for the latter) and I imagine it’s going to be even tougher for those people to hear someone who seems to channel all three at once. But it should be said that we can usually revel in a voice that is truly unique. There is absolutely NO ONE out there that sounds like Baby Dee. But whether or not she’s good, I can’t make that judgment for you. I can appreciate the astounding level of artistry that Dee puts forth, but I can’t imagine I’ll be playing Safe Inside the Day over and over again. In that way, I suppose this album is like Requiem for a Dream. It’s a film so intense and beautiful that you know it’s good, but so uncomfortable at times that you just can’t find yourself going back to it a second time. However, in Dee’s favor, every time Requiem ends up on the screen, I end up riveted.