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Baby Dee is on her best behavior

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"Pardon me while I stick my head out the window and howl": Baby Dee
  • "Pardon me while I stick my head out the window and howl": Baby Dee

Such a singular artist as Baby Dee doesn't come along often. Even within the roster of Drag City Records -- the Chicago label that reps a high-talent fringe that includes Bill Callahan, Joanna Newsom and Will Oldham -- the Cleveland harpist and pianist stands out.

It is, to be sure, partly due to her backstory. Dee, born in Cleveland as a male, spent time in New York City -- first as an organist for a Catholic church, then as a street artist and circus performer. She transitioned during that time from male to female, and in the 1990s traveled with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus as a musician. In the early '00s, she settled back down in Cleveland, writing and recording her own songs. 

In 2008, she released Safe Inside the Day, her first album on Drag City. It was a largely piano-based, genre-shifting trip; beginning with the title track, a gospel lullaby, and ending with the melancholy but reassuring "You'll Find Your Footing," the album shows Dee's full repertoire. She takes cues from jazz, from cabaret showtunes, from classical music. Baby Dee is a virtuoso pianist ("Flowers on the Tracks"). Baby Dee is silly ("Big Titty Bee Girl from Dino Town"). Baby Dee is a first-rate poet (the ballad "Compass of the Light," which addresses the life of a bee).

(Baby Dee also attracts similarly unorthodox talent, like Pittsburgh's own Phat Man Dee.)

Dee's sometimes-deep, sometimes-silly vocals -- while enchanting -- were off-putting to some critics at the time. Pitchfork's Joshua Klein called Dee's voice "an acquired taste"; a SPIN reviewer panned the album outright, calling the songs "hammy and histrionic ... off-off-Broadway torch tunes."

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The album also introduced the collaborative nature of Dee's work. Produced by Matt Sweeney (Chavez, Zwan) and Will Oldham, with instrumental help from plenty of notables (Paul Oldham, Andrew WK), Safe Inside the Day allowed Dee to envision exactly what teamwork would mean to her art.

"Up until then I'd been doing everything all by my lonesome," she writes. "The experiences of having Matt Sweeney and Will Oldham solving problems and making decisions for me was so refreshing and positive and life-changing that I never looked back after that. Everything I've done since then, [I've done] with the help of people I admire."

Since Safe Inside the Day, Baby Dee has issued two more albums through Drag City: 2010's A Book of Songs for Anne Marie, and the brand-new Regifted Light. Each has its own separate feel and narrative arc. 

"I never set out to be true to some 'theme,'" she writes via email (Dee, it seems, has no phone.) "I just write what I write and the songs belong together because they share a journey or they share a discovery of friends."

A Book of Songs for Anne Marie is notable for its more baroque sounds, its more "classical" arrangements. (Where the piano was the backbone of most of the songs on the previous album, the harp is the main weapon here.) It was produced by Maxim Moston, the string player and arranger perhaps best known for his work with Antony and the Johnsons and Edison Woods. 

A Book of Songs lacks the silly and carnivalesque tones that Safe Inside the Day sometimes reaches, but staves off sameness. Dee's delivery is as spot-on as ever, and the track that's arguably the album's centerpiece, "Black But Comely," finds her moving seamlessly from her deep singing voice to a lilting chirp and even the occasional chuckle. She seems now and again to nearly run out of breath, but never loses direction, ultimately leaving the listener nearly breathless as well.

Dee again credits her collaborators with the album's having turned out as it did. 

"Maxim Moston ... wanted for it to be 'pristine,'" she writes, "and I remembered laughing at the idea of anything of mine being pristine. But you know, he pulled it off! It turned out really great because there was someone there to take the songs to a place where I couldn't take them myself."

Regifted Light, which was released last month, was recorded "in three days in the snow" at Dee's Cleveland home, using a piano owned by Andrew WK, the album's producer. "Absolutely the most exuberant guy I've ever known," Dee writes, putting to rest the idea that the album doesn't have the same "exuberance" as the first album did. 

"Yes, the album has a certain classicalness about it, but it doesn't sound like good behavior to me," she writes. 

(Speaking of bad behavior, don't suggest to Dee that she might have gleaned stylistic aspects from her years playing in the church. "If by liturgical music you're referring to any of the horrible stuff they do in churches," she writes, "then pardon me while I stick my head out the window and howl," following up with a several-lines-long approximation of a howl, including numerous vowels and some zeros.)

Regifted Light lasts more than nine minutes before the first vocals are introduced, and again Dee resists returning to the gypsy beats and overt goofiness of Safe Inside the Day -- except for "The Pie Song," a two-plus minute romp in which she insists repeatedly, and theatrically, that she must have that pie. 

So perhaps it is too early to say that Baby Dee's lost some portion of her exuberance -- and clearly it's too early to suggest she's writing liturgical works (though it remains a salient point that her music has a certain devotional element to it). In fact, if Dee has her way, perhaps the pendulum will swing back toward the jovial -- her short-term plan would seem to suggest so, anyway.

"I want to get a Hammond B3 and see where that takes me."

 

BABY DEE with Anita Fix 8 p.m. Fri., May 6. The Andy Warhol Museum, 122 Sandusky St., North Side. $12-15. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org

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