Baby Dee’s first half century on this planet reads like the plot to some fantastical indie movie. Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1953, Baby Dee studied classical harp, worked as a church verger, changed gender from male to female, and pursued a career busking on the streets of Manhattan: riding a giant tricycle in a bee suit, playing Shirley Temple songs.
She left music, and retrained as a tree surgeon. This last career was curtailed when a tree that Baby Dee was working on ended up wrecking someone’s house. Tree surgery’s loss, however, has been music’s gain. Baby Dee teamed up with like-minded mavericks like Marc Almond, Antony And The Johnsons, Current 93’s David Tibet, playing her harp in small clubs and singing beautiful, introspective torch songs in a quavering tenor voice.
Her fourth studio album comes as a radical change in direction. Produced by Will Oldham and journeyman multi-instrumentalist Matt Sweeney (Zwan, Johnny Cash, El-P), it sees Baby Dee switching to piano and adding extroversion to her songcraft, backed by a string section and some illustrious musicians (including Andrew WK on bass and drums).
The results prove comforting for fans of canonical rock. “Safe Inside The Day” recalls John Cale; “The Earlie King” suggests Tom Waits; “Teeth Are The Only Bones That Show” has Dr John’s boogie swagger. “Fresh Out Of Candles”, meanwhile, could be off Lou Reed’s Transformer.
But these influences are radically altered in a couple of ways. By Baby Dee’s bald, witty and poetic lyrics (“there’s a harp inside that piano/and a girl inside that boy” she sings on “The Dance Of The Diminishing Possibilities”). And also by her extraordinary voice – a well-enunciated, declamatory style that sounds like a drunken vaudeville performer doing a Brecht opera.
The result demands your attention – it may well be one of the first great albums of 2008.