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Baby Dee

Regifted Light

(Drag City; US: 22 Mar 2011; UK: 14 Mar 2011)

Snails r Us

“Snails cannot speak. Speech is life. Snails have no life.”
—Oscar Wilde


Baby Dee can speak. Heck, she can do a lot more than that. She has a rich, full operatic voice that resonates with vivid colors and deep emotions. She also plays the piano in an ornate classical style that suggests, unlike snails, she leads an exuberant, intellectual existence.


Baby Dee performs a tribute to the gastropod mollusk, in addition to its shell-lacking cousin the slug, on the song “Brother Slug and Sister Snail”. She celebrates the beauty of their slime trails and the dignity that resides in living so close to the ground, in a voice that trills, swoops, and roars, as if to declare that these little creatures that share our world deserve our respect.


Of course, she may be singing metaphorically. Snails and slugs are also hermaphrodites. Baby Dee was born male and now is a transgendered female. Her identification with these creatures makes psychological sense. Then again, making sense is irrelevant to the whimsical heart of Baby Dee’s music. The dozen tracks on her latest release seem much more concerned with playfulness and beauty. Even their titles, like “Cowboys With Cowboy Hair”, Lullaby Parade” and “Coughing Up Cat Hair”, are quirky and express capricious sentiments.


The last three compositions mentioned are instrumentals, as are eight of the 12 cuts on Regifted Light. They range from short in length (the five-minute “Yapapipi”)  to the shorter (the 45-second “Horn Pipe”). The entire disc only last 33 minutes, but there is so much going on in each piece that the record seems longer. It is packed with unusual orchestrations and intricate compositional motifs. Baby Dee energetically plays a Steinway D grand piano given to her by her producer, impressario Andrew WK, and is ably joined by such talented artists as Matthew Robinson on cello, Mark Messing on bassoon, tuba, and sousaphone, and percussionist Jon Steinmeier.


The disparity between the serious playing and the lightheartedness of what’s being expressed gives Baby Dee’s music its power. Even when she proclaims in a deep bass voice, “Give me that pie / I want that pie / Give that pie to me / I must have that pie” over a solemn piano riff that she pounds more than plays, it comes off as some sort of Beefhartian seriousness. The absurd has an arousing impact, and the person who has never intensely desired something sweet and tasty to satisfy one’s appetite cannot be said to truly be alive.


The two most overtly serious lyrical works, the title tune and “On the Day I Die”, have the same sort of bearing. On “Regifted Light”, she calls the moon her “redeemer” and “befriending Jesus” because the orb gently reflects light. The conceit that the light we transfer has more value than the original because the light is shared is conveyed in a style that resembles a Shaker hymn whose beauty lies in its tender openness. “On the Day I Die” has the same church-like acoustics. On that day, she invokes nothing like the grandiose opening of the pearly gates. Instead, it will be the day Baby Dee takes her mother for a ride and goes fishing with her father. These simple acts offer the most precious spiritual pleasures.


The instrumental tracks link the seemingly disparate lyrical ones together. Even the songs with words usually open with a long instrumental intro (the one exception is “The Pie Song”). While Baby Dee’s vocalizations tend to get most of the attention, because she has such a distinctive and unusual voice, she’s also a tremendous pianist and composer. She makes the Steinway a prominent feature of every song. Her piano music, as on her solo “Cowboy Street”, demands critical respect and attention for its compositional qualities and the caliber of her playing. Baby Dee may be writing about slugs and snails, cowboys and pie, but she is a serious artist worthy of sincere consideration.

Rating:

Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


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