Listen to almost any Oh Sees release since 2006 and you’ll hear Brigid Dawson. That’s her providing interjections like Kim Deal on Floating Coffin’s “Minotaur”, melding with John Dwyer’s falsetto on Smote Reverser’s “Sentient Oona”, and harmonising spookily on Putrifiers II’s “Wax Face”. A valuable, spirited team player, for sure, but, to the casual listener, there was little sign that she could be
a brilliant solo artist.
There had been rumours she’d been working on her own music in San Francisco for a few years now, though; and in 2017, she contributed three excellent songs to Memory Of A Cut Off Head, the ornate, Forever Changes-esque album she and Dwyer created under the name OCS. Yet the majesty and beguiling strangeness of what’s now emerging as her long-awaited first solo album may still come as something of a surprise. This extraordinary debut is a league away from anything she’s been involved in previously, and resolutely not a rock record. Instead, Dawson comes on like a cross between Nina Simone, Cate Le Bon and Robert Wyatt, her psychedelic, jazzy reveries alternatively pastoral and fiery, the latter element taken from her love of that most intimidating of genres, free jazz.
Dawson grew up in England fascinated by the jazz her pianist father performed; after singing in groups in London, she moved to the US in the early 2000s, where she met John Dwyer in a San Francisco café and was caught up in his whirlwind of garage creativity. If he’s the poster boy for prolificacy, though, Dawson tells Uncut that she’s the opposite: confidence has never been her strong point. Ballet Of Apes, in fact, almost didn’t happen. Recording took place in San Francisco with Sic Alps and Peacers leader Mike Donovan, in Melbourne with Mikey Young of the Eddy Current Suppression Ring and Total Control, and in Brooklyn with sludge-jazz weirdos Sunwatchers. Halfway through these sporadic sessions, though, Dawson almost abandoned the project, and it was only encouragement and help from Dwyer that made her complete the album.
The result is very much a piece of two halves, perfect for vinyl. Side One is more earthbound and a little lo-fi, although certainly not without ambition. Opener “Is The Season For New Incarnations” begins with an echoing beat and droning Vox organ, like Moe Tucker and John Cale recording for Phil Spector, before it blossoms into Crimson-esque grandeur with a dusty Mellotron and Morse-code organ. Dawson sings commandingly of “furious joy”, “a new vision”, and, beautifully wavering, declaims “man in his fortress [raining] down decrees”.
The rest of the side is more subtle, with “The Fool” – originally featured on Memory Of A Cut Off Head, in a very different version – driven by the bass of Fresh & Onlys’ Shayde Sartin, the trashy drums of Mike Shoun and Jeff Tobias on bass clarinet. “Carletta’s In Hats Again” is a dreamy, drifting ballad, with Dawson on piano and vocals, accompanied by Mike Donovan’s drum machine and Mikey Young’s distorted acoustic guitar. “Those days have all gone,” Dawson keens, joined by gradually building live drums and massed harmonies. It’s spectral and lovely, reminiscent of the loping songs on Cate Le Bon’s Reward. Side One closes with the album’s shortest and least consequential song, “When My Day Of The Crone Comes”, with a bluesy groove driven by Sunwatcher Jim McHugh’s 12-string guitar and electric phin, a kind of Thai lute. While it could conceivably have made sense on an early Oh Sees album, it also acts as a palate-cleanser for the more experimental, heavenly music yet to come.
Side Two, then, is really the motherlode of Ballet Of Apes, containing three songs that defy genre and whip up their disparate elements into something deeply sublime. The title track is one long crescendo of double bass, saxophone, percussive shakers and jazzy drums, provided by Sunwatchers and reminiscent of Alice Coltrane’s Journey Into Satchidananda, or of Brigitte Fontaine’s work with the Art Ensemble Of Chicago on 1969’s Comme A La Radio. Dawson hovers above it all, her swooping vocals mostly wordless (“ballet… o-of… aa-hapes… woo!” can just about be deciphered), reminiscent of the vocalising of her heroes such as Robert Wyatt or experimental jazzer Jeanne Lee. As it builds it becomes more psychedelic and uncommonly powerful, with processed electric guitar and Dawson’s vocals dissolving into something more guttural.
“Heartbreak Jazz” is its counterpart, a lengthy, heavy ballad with chords that endlessly descend like a staircase stretching down to some ancient labyrinth. Jeff Tobias contributes an impressive drone on his alto sax via the medium of circular breathing, as piano, wild electric guitar, drums and organ back Dawson’s evocative lyrics: “Haunted by my dreams/How long the dark night seems…” There’s a hint of Led Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, but curdled and rid of all masculine bombast, or even a touch of the stately dread of King Crimson’s “Epitaph”; John Dwyer must surely approve.
With a see-sawing sway, the closing “Trixxx” is carried by Dawson’s wordless voice, the twinkling, rusted tones of her Omnichord, and Tobias’s sax playing, here plaintive and not a little reminiscent of David Bowie’s underrated work on the instrument. After the darkness and intensity of the previous 14 minutes, it provides some welcome respite.
Taken as one 36-minute adventure, Ballet Of Apes is extraordinary: an unexpected journey through Dawson’s musical obsessions, it channels a mix of styles and influences in a way that feels completely fresh. Those assisting her have created some of the most exciting music of the last decade, and their input has surely been important in terms of arrangements, but what’s really special here is the mood of the record, its vibe and its songs, and that’s entirely the product of Dawson herself. As she explains in our Q&A, these seven tracks take earthly concerns – being in a band, touring as a woman in a very male environment – and elevate them to a kind of abstract, mythical plain.
Dawson is also a visual artist, which is perhaps a crucial clue to unlocking Ballet Of Apes. Along with her interest in free jazz and expressive, improvisatory styles of music, it’s possible to see these seven songs as a type of painting with sound, a messy, wild process of distillation and curation, until only sparse daubs of bright colour remain on the canvas. Limited elements, but a giant impact. It’s been worth the wait.