A former street performer and tree climber gets some assistance from Will Oldham, Matt Sweeney and Andrew W.K. on her Drag City debut.
As a former street performer who played a concert harp atop a high-rise tricycle, you would not think Baby Dee has a hard time gaining attention. Yet despite two strong albums of elegant songwriting, widespread acclaim has eluded her even in the independent music community. In 2004 she retreated from the music business to start a tree pruning company, lured by the delight of climbing. Unfortunately, a freak wind pushed a tree the wrong way, leaving a house crushed and Baby Dee in debt. That’s when friends are most important, and Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney chose her to open up a show for them on their Superwolf tour. Aside from financial aid, it sparked a collaboration that brought Safe Inside the Day to fruition.
With Baby Dee’s idiosyncratic vocals and Sweeney’s bare production, Safe Inside the Day is sure to draw comparisons to Antony (for whom Baby Dee played harp on his first album), Tom Waits, and perhaps Joanna Newsom. While she shares a theatrical performing style with these artists, Baby Dee’s music sits in a different Venn diagram of genres-- and then she tears the diagram apart. The opening title track, a highlight of the album, features a rousing vocal performance set to piano and subtle strings. It is similar in tone and effect to Antony’s “Hope There’s Someone”, an unflinching opening statement that will weed out any less adventurous listeners (or those with an aversion to her distinctively expressive vocals).
From here, Baby Dee hops from cabaret to blues, torch song to tango, handling all styles with extreme confidence. Her classical training as a harpist and organist for a church choir is evident in the two instrumentals that kick off the second half of the album; “A Christmas Jig for a Three-Legged Cat” pops out of nowhere with recorder and contrapuntal piano, flowing into the more subdued string and piano duet of “Flowers on the Tracks”. Standout track “The Only Bones That Show” is a stomping number with the most memorable chorus of the album, a lyrical and musical hook that adds a gang of backup singers to the mix.
Occasionally Baby Dee’s vocals distract from the words she is singing, despite the uniformly excellent lyrics. “The Only Bones” points out the fragility of the human body, based on insights from her tree-climbing days: “And when you’re up there in the cold/ Hopin’ that your knot will hold/ And swingin’ in the snow/ That’s when you know/ That teeth are the only bones that show”. “Fresh out of Candles” is a humorous take on the diminishing respect for religion, a story of saints turning into bad apples: “Father Son and Holy Ghost/ Stole the bacon and burnt the toast/ Fresh out of candles, Poor Saint Blaise/ Went down chokin’ on steak and eggs.”
Safe Inside the Day is a strong album by a clearly skilled musician, but it is also an attempt to capture a natural performer. How well it succeeds in this regard is up to those who have seen Baby Dee perform. Her unusual voice begs for a visual counterpart, and you can only imagine her rocking, swaying, closing her eyes in the haze of the music. It can be slightly exhausting to listen to on its own, though the variety of styles goes a long way in maintaining an open ear. Perhaps the association with Will Oldham and Matt Sweeney will increase awareness of her unique songwriting talent (Andrew W.K. and members of the Johnsons and Current 93 also guest), though their contributions put the spotlight squarely on Baby Dee, and to their credit, you soon forget they are involved. On Safe Inside the Day, Baby Dee sounds mature and experienced, while singing with youthful exuberance. Her life story is full of amazing turns (too many to name here), but let’s hope she sticks with music for a while longer.