Record review: Nina Nastasia, ‘Outlaster’

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine’s winter 2011 issue.

nastasia-coverNina Nastasia

After recording four solo albums, Nina Nastasia gave equal billing to drummer Jim White on her 2007 record You Follow Me — an unusual juxtaposition of strong percussion with acoustic guitar and vocals. Three years later, Nastasia is back with a different sort of collaboration, combining the elegant sounds of a chamber orchestra with her folk rock. Arranger Paul Bryan (who’s worked with of Aimee Mann and others) adapted Nastasia’s songs for string and woodwind quintets. Drummer Jay Bellerose has played with Nastasia before, but his work on this album is most reminiscent of the distinctive beats he has provided in the past for Sam Phillips. Jeff Parker of Tortoise played guitar, and producer Steve Albini captured it all at his Electrical Audio studio in Chicago. Outlaster masterfully mixes all of these elements — often shifting back and forth between strummed guitars and exquisite orchestration within the course of a single song. The strings and woodwinds bring out a wistful quality in Nastasia’s voice. On many of these songs, beginning with the lovely opening lullaby, “Cry, Cry, Baby,” Nastasia’s understated vocals in the verses fly up into a higher register for the choruses. The remarkable number “This Familiar Way” begins with little more than a whisper, before bursting out into a string-quartet tango. The closing track, “Outlaster,” is a pensive lament with a melody resembling an ancient sea chantey — and maritime lyrics to match. Describing a sailor, Nastasia sings: “At peace from drowning, far out he sings: ‘What can forever but misery bring?’” At this moment, the strings and drums are whispering, too — giving space for Nastasia to cry out quietly for the lost sailor. That delicate balance is what makes this album one of Nastasia’s best so far.



Record review: Espers, ‘III’

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine’s winter 2010 issue.


A few years ago, just about any small-label act playing acoustic instruments was suddenly called “freak folk,” whether or not there was anything freaky about the music. Espers really lived up to the description, though, and the band still does on this third full-length album. What makes Espers freaky isn’t the fact these Philadelphia musicians look like hippies and pose for photographs in front of gnarly old trees (although they do). Rather, it’s the band’s distinctive combination of medieval melodies and harmonies with contemporary sounds like the buzzing electric guitars and synthesizers. This psychedelic Renaissance fair vibe is not completely new, having been tried in the late ’60s by bands such as Pentangle, but it sounds fresh and, yes, freaky when Espers do it. After creating some dense layers on its second album in 2006, II, Espers goes for a slightly lighter mix on III. Greg Weeks’ piercing guitar stands out this time as the lead instrument, drilling away at the melodies. Arpeggios on acoustic guitar provide the framework for these songs, while violins and Mellotrons swoop in for dramatic effect. As precise as the musicians are, they almost manage to swing on the faster songs. Weeks and Meg Baird share lead vocals, both of them achieving that floating-in-the-clouds quality of English folk-rock like Fairport Convention. This working title of III was Colony, and the band says the songs were inspired by Werner Herzog’s film Aguirre, the Wrath of God and other tales of colonial conquest and jungle ceremonies. The connections between the lyrics and this subject matter are unclear, but this album certainly inspires mental images of mysterious rituals.



Record review: Clogs, ‘The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton’

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine’s summer 2010 issue.

The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton

The human voice made only cameo appearances on the four previous records by composer Padma Newsome and his Clogs ensemble, but it’s at the center of their latest song cycle. Despite going vocal, Clogs still sound more like a classical chamber group than a rock band. These delicate compositions resemble Renaissance ballads or 19th-century art songs more than contemporary pop numbers, with a light, spacious quality shining through even in darker and pensive passages. Newsome wrote these songs during a residency at Giardini La Mortella, a botanical paradise created by Lady Susana Walton on Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples. (Lady Walton, the widow of British composer Sir William Walton, died in March, just a few weeks after the Clogs released their musical tribute to her garden.) The record opens with stunningly complex a cappella harmonies on the song “Cocodrillo.” Each voice chants the Italian name for a different animal or plant found in Lady Walton’s garden until they merge together — a meticulously plotted and executed cacophony. While Newsome sings at a few points on the album, the dominant voice belongs to guest vocalist Shara Worden (aka My Brightest Diamond). Worden is a classically trained singer, and it shows in her elegant, almost operatic delivery. Newsome’s lyrics are often striking, as when (on “The Owl of Love”)  Worden sings, “I take in the souls of the minds of the world and sift out the weeds from the few.” Matt Berninger and Sufjan Stevens also make appearances on the disc. Like Stevens, who incorporates Philip Glass-style minimalism into the string arrangements for his folk-rock songs, Clogs are performing beguiling and sophisticated music that erases the lines between genres.



Record review: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & the Cairo Gang, ‘The Wonder Show of the World’

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine’s summer 2010 issue.

bonnie-coverBonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & the Cairo Gang
The Wonder Show of the World

Singer-songwriter Will Oldham is credited to Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & the Cairo Gang. Of course, Oldham settled on the Bonnie Billy moniker some years back, and while the Cairo Gang sounds like the name of a band, it’s actually just Emmett Kelly, who’s been a regular member of Oldham’s backup band for the past few years. Kelly plays guitar in a loose, expressive style, and when he performs with Oldham in concert, it looks as if he’s making up a lot of what he does on the spot, taking cues from Oldham’s own performance. That sort of musical communication makes Kelly an ideal partner for Oldham on these studio recordings. Unlike 2009’s Beware, which featured a full band adding colorful and sometimes strange flourishes to Oldham’s songs, this one is spare, with just a touch of understated percussion here and there. It’s yet another solid collection of idiosyncratic, personal songs from this prolific songwriter. Oldham has never sung better, gently catching all the subtle nuances of his melodies. His lyrics read like poetry on the page, but somehow even his archaic turns of phrase feel natural when he sings them. With a little more gloss, “That’s What Our Love Is” could pass for an early-’70s folk-rock ballad by Crosby, Stills & Nash or maybe even a soft-rock hit, but Oldham’s lyrics begin with the ominous line: “Don’t go to bed if you know that something’s waiting to grab you in the night and throttle hope from your heart.” And then he finishes the song by crooning, “I believe these are end times. Wouldn’t it be best to be together then? The smell of your box on my moustache or a crossword on our mind.” Oldham dares to let his mind take him to places other songwriters avoid. On the last track, the elegiac “Kids,” he sings from the perspective of an aging man who’s afraid of moving, fearful of losing his ability to sing. If anything, Oldham sounds more fearless than ever.



Record review: Oneida, ‘Preteen Weaponry’

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine’s fall 2009 issue.

oneida-coverLast year’s Preteen Weaponry came stickered with this bold announcement: “The first piece of Oneida’s much-anticipated ‘Thank Your Parents’ triptych of releases, which will lay bare the band’s colossal vision of a new age in music.” One assumes that they were joking about the huge impact their music would have. After all, the Brooklyn art-rock band has been releasing superb records for many years while receiving little of the attention they merit. And sure enough, the riveting Preteen Weaponry went largely unnoticed by most rock critics. Now that Oneida has released the second part of its trilogy, Rated O, it’s clear that band’s boasts were not completely in jest. No, Oneida is not creating “a new age in music,” but it is certainly making highly ambitious, top-notch experimental rock.

Even though Rated O is the middle piece of a three-album triptych, by itself it’s a massive, three-CD set—a triptych within the triptych. Oneida must love things that come in threes. Preteen Weaponry was basically one song divided into three parts, and now, Rated O offers 15 songs split into three distinct sections. The first disc emphasizes electronic beats and circular keyboard patterns, sounding more like a dance record than anything Oneida has ever done. Guest vocals by Dad-Ali Ziai give the opening track, “Brownout in Lagos,” an Afro-beat flavor, but heavy reverb makes it sound like Ziai is fighting against crashing waves of electric noise. Claiming they were exploring the boundaries between what music is considered “organic” and what’s considered “synthetic,” Oneida reportedly built these electronic songs by playing most of those notes live, rather than using sequencers or programming. With their virtuosity and sharp sense of timing, Oneida’s members give the music a constant sense of forward motion.

Rated O’s middle disc sounds more like previous Oneida albums, with a vibe evoking Krautrock bands such as Can. On this disc’s six tracks, repetitive organ riffs and propulsive drumming lay the groundwork for searing guitar solos, while the band occasionally sings pretty harmonies that might seem more apt for Renaissance monks. Oneida has always excelled at stretching the boundaries of what you’re allowed to do within the confines of a song, and the group does it again on the standout track “Ghost in the Room.” At one moment, most of the band stops, Santana-style, to allow for a frenzied guitar solo. Then the song locks into one last riff and won’t let go, turning that riff around and around for more than two minutes, repeating with a precision that seems robotic at first but yields more and more intensity—until the band suddenly stops. The third disc of Rated O feels like a coda, with three instrumental tracks allowing the band to vamp with a probing sense of improvisation, adding an Eastern flair with sitar and burbling outer-space synths. Expanding to a five-member lineup and bringing in several guest players allowed Oneida to use more sonic colors across these three CDs. Rated O contains so much music that it’s probably not the best starting place for listeners unfamiliar with Oneida, but it is truly epic.



Record review: Wildbirds & Peacedrums, ‘The Snake’

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine’s fall 2009 issue.

wildbirds-coverWildbirds & Peacedrums
The Snake

Vocals and percussion are the two sounds at the core of this duo from Gothenburg, Sweden. Wildbirds & Peacedrums’ songs often consist of nothing more than Mariam Wallentin singing while her husband, Andreas Werliin, pounds away or ticks off a beat on his drum kit. On The Snake, their second album, the duo occasionally uses other instruments, including steel drum, piano, xylophone, marimba and Rhodes, but those instruments feel secondary to the dynamic combination of drums and human voice. Wallentin calls out her words in a forceful, brassy tone like a blues diva, but she sometimes displays a more delicate side. On “So Soft So Pink,” she softly sings in a chanteuse style not too distant from the work of Feist, although she allows her voice to sink into stranger, throatier depths at the end as she declares, “There is nothing to say about history.” The only clunker here is “Chain of Steel,” with its inane chorus: “She’s got a hold on me/not in a tasty way/she’s got a hold on me/in a nasty way.” Otherwise, The Snake is a solid collection of catchy, rhythmic tunes that stand a chance of breaking through to the mainstream. Some of these songs, such as “My Heart,” would sound great on a movie or TV soundtrack. And yet, there’s also a peculiar streak running through the whole record. Songs that might have been standard pop ballads in the hands of another band break out into clattering drum solos and vocal outbursts that are almost alarming in their intensity.



Record review: Evangelicals, ‘The Evening Descends’

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine’s spring 2008 issue.

The Evening Descends

So Gone, the terrific 2006 debut album by Evangelicals, received little of the attention it deserved, perhaps because this oddball outfit from Norman, Oklahoma, did not fit easily into the any current indie-rock category. Evangelicals continue to defy genre boundaries on their second album, playing chords and melodies that might have worked as pop songs and then twisting them into distorted miniature epics of passionately felt emotion and supernatural imagery. The songs almost seem to be fighting their way through a haze of reverb, echoing feedback, twinkling keyboards, harp glissandos, snippets of dialogue and various unidentifiable sounds, but the tunes do make themselves heard. Josh Jones sings about monsters growing inside of him, waking up screaming, encountering skeleton men and going crazy right outside his mother’s door. When he alludes to more prosaic pop-tune topics like, say, romance, he delivers lines such as: “When someone loves you very much, you’re fucked.” More than one song includes a proclamation about the end of the world being near. The apocalyptic turmoil in the lyrics gives Jones license to sing with almost unbridled feeling, gliding his falsetto up and down the melodies in search of sometimes elusive notes. As a vocal performance, it’s fearless, even when the strange stories told by the lyrics seem to filling Jones (or his characters) with quivering fright. Jones and his fellow Evangelicals, Kyle Davis and Austin Stephens, bring their wonderfully hallucinatory trip to a hopeful-sounding climax on the keyboard-driven “Bloodstream.” Sure, the song talks about getting shot in the eyes by God himself, but its protagonist wakes up laughing — a feeling the listener may share as the last track fades.


Books Music

Book review: ‘I Shot a Man in Reno’

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine’s fall 2008 issue.

ishot-coverI Shot a Man in Reno
By Graeme Thomson

A few years ago, the Mekons’ Jon Langford told me about his fascination with old-time folk and country songs about death. He lamented the dearth of death songs on today’s charts. “And now pop music’s essentially sanitized to the point where there’s no drinking, cheating or killing songs on country radio—although the movies are full of fantasy, death and violence,” he said. “A lot of those folk songs were talking about real events. Maybe society is censoring itself. The mainstream cannot deal with this material anymore.”

After that interview, it occurred to me that Langford did not have it quite right. Maybe mainstream Nashville has shoved the murder ballad into the closet, but gangsta rap overflows with violence. And as Graeme Thomson proves with his book, I Shot a Man in Reno (subtitled “A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease and General Misadventure”), the Grim Reaper is lurking in just about every genre of popular music. Over the course of this thoughtful essay, Thomson discusses hundreds of death songs. The author of previous books on Elvis Costello and Willie Nelson, here he carefully delineates all the varieties of musical death, from old-fashioned murder ballads to the car-crash sagas of the ’60s and the mortality-obsessed music of heavy-metal and emo bands.

Thomson is a surefooted guide through this musical graveyard. His writing is never dry or academic, but he smartly puts each song into its sociological and psychological context. It’s fascinating to see how concepts of death changed over the decades, as Thompson points out trends such as the explosion of death songs during the 1960s psychedelic era.

It would have been nice if Thomson had lingered longer over some of the significant songs he writes about, rather than flitting so quickly from one tune to another. And while this book is largely a work of interpretation rather than history or journalism, it would benefit from more of the stories behind the songs. Thomson does make excellent use of quotes from some A-list songwriters; he interviewed Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Will Oldham and Nick Cave, and he draws on other sources for remarks from other musicians.

At first, it may seem puzzling that songs on this grim topic have become hits and even popular standards, but Thomson persuasively shows that death very much belongs in pop music. If music is about the human experience, death must be in there, along with everything else. One of Thomson’s sources, Richard Thompson, puts it best in the book’s final chapter, saying, “The obvious thing to say is that a song about death is a song about life.”



Baby Dee profile

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine’s Spring 2008 issue.

Baby Dee talks about the old German folk tale of the Erlkönig as if it really happened to her—back when she was still a boy, growing up in Cleveland.

The Erlkönig, a king with a beard and a flowing cloak, appears to people who are about to die. In one of his most famous poems, Goethe described a father carrying his son on a nighttime journey. The boy sees the Erlkönig chasing after them, but the father sees nothing but a wisp of fog. The boy hears the Erlkönig seductively whispering, “You dear child, come along with me! Such lovely games I’ll play with you.” The father reassures his son that the voice is just leaves rustling in the wind. And then, when the man reaches a farmhouse, the child in his arms is dead.

As a boy taking piano lessons, Baby Dee played the Schubert song based on Goethe’s poem. His father liked the tune. And now, the story has surfaced again, in a song called “The Earlie King” on Baby Dee’s album Safe Inside the Day. In Baby Dee’s version, the Earlie King lures his victim by promising “all the bacon that a boy can eat.”

What does that medieval North European myth have to do with this 53-year-old singer, pianist, harpist and former circus performer, who went through a gender change when she was in her thirties? Baby Dee is reluctant to reveal the whole story. In an interview, she is frank and open about her life at one moment, guarded the next.

“Some of these stories get a little bit personal,” she says, “but in my family, there was an encounter with the Earlie King, before I was born. And my father was acquainted with this whole scenario. And so the song for me is about that whole idea of this imaginary thing that has very real, very terrible consequences.”

Whatever happened—and whether it was real, imaginary or metaphorical—Baby Dee felt a personal connection to that folk tale about a father who’s oblivious to a deadly apparition stalking his child. And now those childhood memories are the foundation of Baby Dee’s vivid lyrics.

Bring me a whisky, get me a beer. / What’s that song I like to hear? /‘The dreamy child, the father proud and strong.’ / I kind of like that song, the one about the Earlie King. /Daddy, I can see him, his coat so shiny bright, /Behind us in the night, I can see the Earlie King.

Last November, Baby Dee previewed songs from Safe Inside the Day at the Hideout in Chicago, an old drinking hole for factory workers that has become a hip, but still scruffy, music venue. Baby Dee sat down at the Hideout’s weathered upright; the piano’s front face had been removed for the occasion, revealing an array of strings not unlike those on the harp sitting nearby. A tall, imposing figure with a shock of curly orange hair, Baby Dee wore a turquoise blouse, plaid slacks and work boots, with a leopard-pattern scarf draped around her neck. A Virgin Mary T-shirt occasionally peeked out from beneath the partially buttoned blouse.

As Baby Dee sang in a tremulous falsetto, her head shook a little and her hair flopped around. Moving from the piano to the harp and back, she also switched abruptly between intimate songs such as “The Earlie King” and more ribald cabaret tunes.

“I know what to do next,” Baby Dee said at one point. “The song about the bee. Are there any albinos in the house? No? Good. It’s probably just as well.”

And then she proceeded to sing “Big Titty Bee Girl (From Dino Town).” The title probably refers to the fact that Baby Dee used to wear a bee costume (as well as cat and bear outfits) during her career as a street musician and sideshow performer. But the song, which sounds like a rousing drinking-hall tune, is mostly about albinos. According to the lyrics, “You just can’t keep a good albino down”—even if you torment, beat, molest the albino, make fun of his eyes, or “tie a sausage to his dick and sic your dog on him.”

The audience sputtered with disbelieving laughter. “I don’t like to brag,” Baby Dee remarked, “but wasn’t that the stupidest song you ever heard?”

The room fell into stunned silence as Baby Dee performed some of her most heart-wrenching and wounded songs. And then there were more gasps as she played a series of ditties designed to offend people of various religions. One song was about a bear that likes to eat Mormon underwear. Presbyterians, Hindus and Methodists were also at the receiving end of some crude jokes. “God’s got a plan for you,” Baby Dee proclaimed at one point. “He’s going to fry your fat ass in hell.”

It’s not unusual for Baby Dee to shock audiences. “I always remember Dee telling a very explicit sexual story once at a show in London,” her longtime friend and collaborator, David Tibet of Current 93, says via e-mail. “I was with Marc Almond, himself no stranger to the demimonde, and he slunk back in his chair, blushing whilst saying, ‘How can she say that? It is so outrageous.’ Then she slipped straight into the most angelic song, whilst a businessman and his lady escort slipped out of the room with jaws hanging open in shock. I laughed a lot, but not as much as Dee did.”

Safe Inside the Day, Baby Dee’s first recording for Drag City, will undoubtedly bring her more attention than any of her previous projects. As a harpist, she’s bound to draw comparisons to Joanna Newsom, though her music is a different animal altogether. At times, her falsetto is reminiscent of Dee’s friend, Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. But Baby Dee also sounds at times like a transgender Tom Waits or Groucho Marx.

“It’s not just aesthetic for her. It’s her way of being in the world,” Hegarty says. “She lives a very mythical life.”

Her life does indeed sound mythical. A self-taught expert on Gregorian chants, Baby Dee has also been the musical director of a Catholic church, a professional tree climber, and a harp-playing bear in Central Park.

Baby Dee recoils at being called a singer-songwriter, not liking the connotations that label carries in today’s music scene. “You can call me a crabby, phony hermaphrodite,” she says. “You can call me anything you want, but don’t call me a singer-songwriter.”

She picked up her name when she was working as a topless dancer at the Pyramid

in New York, which she calls a “tranny titty bar.” The nightclub’s promoter started calling her Dee. “Some neighbor of hers had had a demented child named Baby Dee, and I reminded her of the demented child,” Dee says, laughing. “How could that be?”

Asked about her actual name, Dee says, “My legal name is Dee Norris, but everybody knows me as Baby Dee. My birth name is nobody’s fucking business. There are places that I’m entitled not to go.” (Like everything else Dee says, even profanity-laced remarks that look harsh in print sound good-natured coming out of her mouth.)

Baby Dee’s earliest memory is painting her toenails with her mother’s nail polish. She remembers other children pointing at her red toenails when she went to a swimming pool. Baby Dee appeared to be a boy to the outside world, but she knew that, inside of herself, she was female. “All trannies know it when they’re very little,” she says. “I knew it. Absolutely for a certain fact.”

But for thirty years, Dee would hide this fact. “If I came out as a tranny, when I was in high school, that would have been real bad. I’ve known people who went that route, and very few of them survived. And the ones that did, they went through some rough times.”

Dee’s mother was one of her biggest musical influences. “She just sang constantly,” Dee says. “She knew thousands of songs. It seems as if any song she ever heard, she knew it—wonderful, obscure songs nobody had ever heard of.”

Baby Dee says neighbors weren’t all that friendly in the mixed-ethnic Cleveland area where she grew up, on West 39th Street near Gunnison. “All the kids were afraid of everybody’s father,” Dee recalls. “Fathers were like the crabby little dictators of our world.” The neighborhood did come together for one peculiar moment of impromptu destruction and celebration, however. Dee recalls the incident in her song “Dance of Diminishing Possibilities”:

Bobby Slot and Freddy Weiss were not so nice, / But I liked their names a lot, / So I’ll say ’em twice. / Bobby Slot and Freddy Weiss achieved a modest renown / When they took an ax and went to town / On an old upright. / And it was love, it was love, it was love at first sight. / There’s a harp in that piano, / And there’s a girl inside that boy, / And my daddy’s crowbars are his pride and joy.

“They were a couple of bums who lived across the street from us,” Dee says. “They had a piano, right? And they wanted to not have a piano. They dragged the piano out of their house, and dragged it out to the curb. The garbage man came up, and they said, ‘We’ll help you put it in the truck.’

“The guy said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. I’m not taking anything that doesn’t fit in a garbage can.’ And so they just started demolishing the piano on the spot. They just started bashing it in. Everybody came … It was like a block party. They were using sledgehammers, axes.

“My father really did have a crowbar collection,” she continues. “At one point, he worked for the railroad. I think he must have ripped them off from the railroad yard or something. They were like huge, about five or six feet long. He would just admire them. He had them in the corner…

“So they started demolishing the piano and my father brought his, like, Nine Iron. He had to pick just the right one.”

In the 1960s, Baby Dee listened to the same rock music as the teens around her, but it didn’t have the same impact. “I like Hendrix. I like the Doors. I like the Who,” she says. “I liked all these things, but it didn’t stick. By the time I got out of high school, I never listened to that stuff. I liked playing the piano … but I didn’t listen to music a lot. I was never into that. I feel a little two-faced about being in the business of selling records, because I don’t buy them. I don’t have a CD player in my house.”

Dee began writing music at a young age, but stopped when she found it hard to notate on paper. She didn’t think a career in classical music was possible because performance standards were so high. “A person who does music because they really love music—that’s someone you should look down your nose at,” she says. “Where does this attitude come from? It’s really, really fucked up.”

After high school, Dee moved to New York in 1972, hoping to become a portrait painter. “I wanted to be like John Singer Sargent, make everybody look like Queen Victoria, you know?” she says. But she soon found herself playing the piano more than she was painting. A costume shop in Queens was going out of business, so she picked up a bear costume. She also bought a harp, an instrument she had never played before, and began performing every day in Central Park.

“I wanted to change species,” she says. “People are very nice to bears, especially if the bear can play the harp.”

Later, while earning a living as a cab driver, Dee became obsessed with Gregorian chants, singing the sacred tunes to herself inside her home. The simplicity of the music appealed to her, and she discovered that the pieces seemed to come alive if she concentrated hard enough on singing them. “To me, that was completely miraculous,” she says.

She was singing the chants phonetically, not understanding the Latin lyrics. But at the same time, she had become interested in the writings of Ovid and began studying Latin. One day, it all clicked. Dee remembers the specific place where she was walking—turning left onto 96th Street from Broadway—when she suddenly realized the meanings of all of those words in the Gregorian chant.

Baby Dee led an informal choir to perform music by the Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni da Palestrina, whom she calls “the greatest, greatest composer who ever lived.” Dee also studied conducting at a city college, but her teacher became frustrated with her lack of interest in any music written after 1600.

“He couldn’t deal with it anymore,” Dee remembers. “So he said, ‘Look, if all you want to do is that shit, why don’t you just learn how to play the organ and get a job at a church?’” She decided that was good advice, and Dee soon had a job as the music director at a Catholic church in the South Bronx. Church music was a good fit for her philosophy that music should be participatory. “It’s a fucking revolutionary idea,” she says. “Music is something you do. You don’t listen to it. You do it … It’s the difference between the thing being outside of you and the thing being inside of you.”

Dee isn’t a practicing Christian, but she made many friends at the church and looks back fondly on her years there. Dee’s lyrics in songs such as “Fresh Out of Candles” make it clear that religion and spirituality are important subjects for her.

Now, Saint Christopher got big and strong / From luggin’ babies all day long, / Keeping Jesus from gettin’ wet. / And I guess that’s just the thanks you get, / Now he’s off the wagon and out of luck, / Gotten drunk and wrecked the truck, / And all the little cherubim are singing, “Why’d you have to pick on him?”

She left her job at the church when she became Baby Dee. “I finally faced reason,” she says. “I changed gender. And it was obvious. I could see the writing on the wall. … There was just no way I could show up one day and say, ‘Well, I’m a girl now.’”

And so Baby Dee went back to working as a street performer, riding around New York and Europe on a high-rise tricycle, playing music for any couples she spotted who appeared to be in love. She also had stints with the Coney Island Circus Sideshow and the Kamikaze Freak Show. Sometimes she was “The Bilateral Hermaphrodite”—half-woman, half-man, split right down the middle, with a black suit on one side and a red dress on the other.

In the mid-1990s, Antony Hegarty met Dee for the first time. “She was go-go dancing on the bar at the Pyramid, topless and playing the accordion,” Hegarty says. “Later I would see her around town on her tricycle in a cat outfit, singing for people in cafes and on the street.”

But Baby Dee left New York and returned to the house where she had grown up in Cleveland. She spent the coming years caring for her ailing parents, both of whom have since died. Dee also began writing songs, at first just for herself. She finally came to the decision that her music should be more than a private act.

“All of a sudden,” she says, “it wasn’t enough for it to just exist within myself. I thought, ‘Well, come on. People ought to hear it. This is stupid.’”

Dee mailed cassettes of her songs to Hegarty. “I was so moved by the depth of the poetry, and the intimacy of it all,” Hegarty says. “The music was obviously very personal, and at the same time iconic and universal.”

Hegarty passed along the tapes to David Tibet, and in 2000, Tibet released the first Baby Dee album, Little Window, on his Durtro label. Baby Dee also played that year on the Durtro debut by Antony and the Johnsons, and she began playing with Tibet’s band, Current 93.

In 2002, Durtro released Baby Dee’s second album, Love’s Small Song. (Last year, Durtro/Jnana reissued Baby Dee’s first two albums and an EP as the two-CD collection The Robin’s Tiny Throat.)

And then Baby Dee stopped writing songs. As she explains in her self-penned press bio, “I thought I had said everything I had to say and there was nothing left to say so I simply stopped.”

To make a living, she started a tree-trimming business. “I started my own [company] because nobody’s going to hire a 50-year-old hermaphrodite and teach him how to climb trees,” she says. “That ain’t gonna happen. Believe me.”

Of all things, why go into tree climbing? “That’s a good question,” Dee says. “The only thing all my jobs have in common is that I was always up high. Even in church in the choir loft, I was way the fuck up there.”

The business was not without its mishaps. “Nobody died. We did have a couple of dismemberments, though. Not for me,” Dee says, laughing. “I had some very close calls, but I didn’t die. Those things are fun—something really dreadful happens and you’re still alive. You’re like, ‘Yee hah! This is great! I love this!’ That’s kind of crazy, but that’s what it’s like.”

Memories of her childhood eventually drew her back into songwriting. Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and Matt Sweeney, who were touring to support their 2005 album Superwolf, asked Baby Dee to open for them at a Cleveland gig. “This was a godsend to me,” Dee says, “because some months earlier I had dropped a tree on a house … and that put me out of business and into debt and deep shit so I needed to find a new way to make a living.”

That night was the first time Baby Dee had ever sung while playing harp. The microphones were placed poorly, and Baby Dee’s set was barely audible. “But eventually,” Sweeney says, “the crowd hushed up and listened. At the end of the night, I remember saying goodbye to Dee and feeling like something great went down that night.”

That experience led Oldham and Sweeney to produce Safe Inside the Day at Rare Book Room in Brooklyn last August. Originally, Baby Dee wanted to record new versions of some songs she had released earlier on a limited-edition CD and book called A Book of Songs for Anne Marie. She thought her new songs based on those childhood memories were too dark and personal to record. But Oldham encouraged her to be brave, writing to her: “I feel like part of the point of recording, of making records, is to put in us what we don’t have in us to do!”

Oldham says, “I think she was worried about the negativity implicit in some of this newer set, but drawing the songs out into the light—safe inside the day, as it were—in the company of friends and loved ones would show the possible positive qualities of the songs.”

In addition to Oldham and Sweeney, the record features Andrew WK on bass, Bill Breeze of Psychic TV on viola, John Contreras of Current 93 on cello, and string arrangements by Max Moston of Antony and the Johnsons.

Oldham wanted to give Baby Dee’s songs all the attention and care they deserved. “Too many times I hear records and wish that I could have been a fly on the wall at the session,” he says. “A very big fly with a loud voice and huge hands—to stop them from doing the stupid things that they do because no one cares.”

One of the songs Baby Dee was the most reluctant to record, “Fresh Out of Candles,” became her favorite. “I really hated that song,” she says. “I didn’t want to do that song. To me, it’s the darkest thing I’ve ever written. It’s so extremely dark that it becomes like a cartoon. It just takes the darkness to such an absurd level. I needed somebody to tell me it was OK to do that. Will was the only person who could do that for me.”

In the studio, the band created a groove for the song, with an echo of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” and that groove gave Baby Dee a way to perform the song she hadn’t seen before. “They created this place, this way to do the song,” Dee says.

In one of the photos in the CD booklet for Safe Inside the Day, an ax rests on the piano in Baby Dee’s home. Another photo shows the house at night. A harp can be viewed through a bay window, brightly illuminated for all to see. That’s how the house actually looks to passersby on almost any given night. Baby Dee said she wanted to make a statement different from her neighbors, many of whom hang American flags in front of their houses.

“I want people to know that having a beautiful interior is lot more important than having a fucking flag outside,” Baby Dee says. “Instead of being out there waving your fucking flag, it would be better to have something beautiful going on on the inside, you know?”

So Baby Dee finds herself back in the same neighborhood where Bobby Slot and Freddy Weiss once smashed a piano to bits. She’s back in the same place where she used to play a Schubert song for her father, who didn’t understand what the story of “The Earlie King” meant to that child at the piano.

Daddy, can you hear me? / It’s got so hard to speak, / I’ll kiss your bristly cheek, / And go with the Earlie King, / Up from the table, / My brother’s tiny soul / All gone, swallowed whole, / Taken by the Earlie King.


Windy City drone

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine’s fall 2007 issue.

As a steady hum rose from the ten musicians in the loose ensemble known as DRMWPN, a flickering glow filled Chicago’s Empty Bottle. The “Dreamachine” was on.

Invented in 1959 by artist Brion Gysin and scientist Ian Sommerville, the Dreamachine is designed to put your brain in a special place. It’s little more than a paper cylinder with holes cut in it, rotating on a 78-rpm record-player motor. There’s a bulb inside, and when the light filters out through those spinning holes, your brain’s alpha waves supposedly get in synch with the flicker. When you’re in the presence of the Dreamachine, you might see “powerfully dramatic scenes like brightly colored dreams” or “living fireballs like the mandalas of Eastern mysticism.” At least, that’s what William S. Burroughs claimed. The Dreamachine is now an integral part of DRMWPN (pronounced “dream weapon”), a group at the heart of Chicago’s so-called drone music scene.

The date was June 29th and DRMWPN was performing at Fugue State, a two-day festival that showcased the growing number of Chicago artists who are stretching musical notes and motifs way past their normal duration. DRMWPN strummed, drummed, bowed and moaned for some forty minutes, using standard rock instruments plus a banjo, an African gimbri and a Leslie Rotating Tremolo Speaker System to create a mesmerizing sound with little more than one chord, swelling up and then finally subsiding back into a peaceful sense of still and quiet. If the Dreamachine did not succeed in causing the hallucinations that Burroughs predicted, the music very well might have.

Someone in the audience yelled, “Encore!”

“We only know one song,” one of DRMWPN’s members responded.

“Play it again!”

It was true. DRMWPN is a band with just one song, though it’s different each time it is performed. The group has never released a recording, although it is accumulating tapes of its live performances and may release some of them eventually. DRMWPN’s song doesn’t even have a title.

“I like the idea of the really long form—of music that isn’t based around the arbitrary three minutes,” said Jim Dorling, the de facto leader of DRMWPN. “You can really get lost in it.”

Other musicians in Chicago’s drone scene share that fascination with the idea of music that puts listeners—and maybe the performers as well—in a trance. But while they all play long pieces, the styles of music vary considerably.

Performers at Fugue State included Number None, which loops feedback-laden guitars through a laptop for a slowly shifting sound; Fortieth Day, which assaulted the audience with an aggressive wall of electronic noise; and guitarist David Daniell, who fronted an ensemble of 12 acoustic musicians performing layers of repeated notes, sounding a little like Steve Reich’s minimalist music.

Is it fair to put the “drone” label on all of that music? Daniell, a member of the band San Agustin who moved from New York to Chicago last year, doesn’t think so. “I’m not comfortable with the use of the term,” he said. “That’s some terminology that got applied to a bunch of folks who really are doing quite different things … Many of the artists who have been placed under that dubious umbrella are not thrilled about it.”

As Daniell points out, a drone is just a musical device. Not all of the musicians in this scene even use drones that meet the technical definition of the word. When Daniell thinks of “drone,” he thinks of musicians like avant-garde violinist and composer Tony Conrad. And of course, droning tones have played an important role in many styles of music from all over the world, ranging from bagpipe tunes to Indian ragas. (Here’s a dubious piece of trivia from wikipedia’s entry on drone: “Elvis Presley also frequently used instruments with drones in his popular music.”)

Liz Payne, a regular member of DRMWPN who plays solo as The Zoo Wheel, shares Daniell’s outlook, saying, “I don’t know how much all of it fits in ‘drone’ music. I wouldn’t necessarily consider what I’m doing to be a drone.”

Chris Miller, who plays in Number None and releases drone music on the Rebis Records label, both in collaboration with Jeremy Bushnell, said, “I have no problems using the word ‘drone.’” But he added, “It does have negative connotations for a lot of people. For people without a context for it, it can be very difficult to describe.”

When Miller and Bushnell organized Fugue State, they decided to call it a “festival of expansive music” instead of using the D word. Explaining why he used the word “expansive,” Miller said, “If there’s one thing that most drone musicians have in common, it’s a love for sustained ideas—be they tones or repeating patterns.”

Dorling said he was a little skeptical about the existence of the Chicago drone scene when a journalist first asked him about it last fall. “I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ But it’s proven that it is there,” he said.

Dorling said he discovered a kindred spirit when he saw a live performance by Lichens—a one-man musical project by Rob Lowe. (Also a member of the currently dormant Chicago band 90 Day Men, Lowe is not to be confused with the movie star whose name he shares.) Lichens uses old analog tape-looping devices to build improvised sonic sculptures out of guitar soloing, birdcalls and Lowe’s spooky, wordless tenor.

And then Dorling saw other Chicago bands exploring similar sonic territory, including White/Light and Goldblood. “Right off the bat, it was pretty clear that we were all doing something similar,” he said. “It’s clear that there is something going on in Chicago.”

Miller said, “It seems like a particularly exciting time to be in this city, because there are so many artists who are doing such exciting things under the same aegis. Many of them are connected to one another. Many of them collaborate with one another. Many of them release each other’s music and play bills with each other.”

That sense of collaboration is what attracted Daniell to Chicago. He originally planned to spend the summer of 2006 in Chicago while he took pedal-steel guitar lessons from virtuoso Ken Champion, but then he decided to stay, and now he’s teaming up with numerous local rock, jazz and experimental musicians. One of his upcoming projects is a duo with Doug McCombs of Tortoise, Brokeback and Eleventh Dream Day.

“As far as my experience goes, it’s the only major metropolitan area in the U.S. where you can really have a viable chance at making creative music as well as afford to live,” Dorling said. “New York does have a great music scene, but I’ve definitely felt more camaraderie here in Chicago… It’s been really amazing and refreshing for me to see people in the free jazz scene and the noise scene and the experimental electronic scene, all sharing band members. There’s lots of crossover and a lot of a openness, different approaches to creativity.” It can be hard to keep track of which players are in which bands. In addition to his work as Lichens, Lowe has become an occasional member of DRMWPN. (He was on tour this summer, so he did not appear at Fugue State.) Lowe has also teamed up with White/Light and Bird Show, a band featuring Ben Vida of DRMWPN.

Another regular with DRMWPN these days is Steve Krakow, who also plays in Goldblood, as well as the more song-oriented psychedelic garage band Plastic Crimewave Sound. When Krakow plays banjo in Goldblood with keyboardist Amy Cargill and other guest musicians, “it’s generally a lot more about exploring the sound and seeing where it takes us,” he told me. “Usually we just go, and count on the intuition among the musicians. And hopefully something will be revealed.”

Krakow also staged one of the scene’s signal events thus far. This Feb. 27 at the Empty Bottle, he rounded up as many people as he could and urged them to bring electric guitars and amps to the Empty Bottle. Fifty-seven guitarists showed up, and for half an hour, they all became members of what Krakow called the Plastic Crimewave Vision Celestial Guitarkestra, playing nothing other than an E chord.

“I had friends who said E is the closest chord to ‘Om,’” Krakow said. “It’s kind of magical chord … I loosely conducted. I wanted it to have a crescendo. I wanted to have as much dynamics as possible.” Some of the untrained performers protested that they didn’t even know how to play guitar, but Krakow gave them a quick lesson on how to form an E chord.

“I just wanted to create a huge sound and raise energy from all these people, get everyone ecstatic and lifted up,” explained Krakow. “It seemed like it worked. People went really crazy. People puked and bled and kicked each other.

They were just overwhelmed. We had amps lined up all against the back wall, and in front of the stage. You really couldn’t get away from the sound. From what I hear, it totally sounded different depending on where you went. Sometimes, there’s some guy doing monster soloing in E. Sometimes, it’s just a huge din. It was just really physical, the sound. I think it was kind of overwhelming for some people. It was like the ocean. You couldn’t hear where the sound ended, it was so vast.”

Krakow later staged another Guitarkestra show at the Hyde Park Art Center, though the turnout was smaller. With about 30 guitarists, the din was not quite so deafening.

One of the most prominent appearances so far by a Chicago drone band was DRMWPN’s performance as an opening act for Bonnie “Prince” Billy on Oct. 16, 2006, at the Portage Theater, a cavernous old movie palace on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

The core musicians in DRMWPN—Dorling, Payne, Vida and Josh Abrams—are probably better known as four members of a band that has been exploring similar ideas for a decade, Town and Country. DRMWPN began in 2003 when Dorling, Payne and Vida thought they were going to play some concerts in Europe without Abrams. They rehearsed and developed the piece that become DRMWPN’s one and only song, but then, the European tour never happened.

At concerts over the next few years, DRMWPN kept on expanding, inviting more and more musicians onto the stage. “We always joke that I’m not even sure everyone’s going to be there,” said Dorling, who usually plays harmonium and sings—bringing out overtones in a style similar to Asian throat singing—at DRMWPN shows. “Actually, it’s fairly stable. Every show is just one or two people different.”

Dorling, who constructed the group’s Dreamachine, said the spinning light column is essential for setting the mood and the tempo for the music. “What it does,” he said, “is you get lost where you need to get lost.” Though he tends to look down now, Dorling used to stare at the light—or at the reflections on his harmonium—as he performed. “I always really addressed it directly,” he said.

During DRMWPN performances, Payne has trouble telling how long the song has gone on. “I don’t have any sense of time passing,” she said. “It’s hard for me to know how long it is at all.” Laughing, she adds, “I’m kind of a slow person, I think. I’m a very contemplative person, so I really like sitting in a space and letting something happen, letting something unfold.”

A common interest in music’s mystical side brought Miller and Bushnell together in Number None. “We both had an appreciation for … the idea that music can create an altered state of perception or consciousness,” Miller said. “In many ways it creates a mental soundtrack … The time-dilating properties of drone music are interesting. You can lose yourself in it. It could be five minutes, or it could be half an hour.” Krakow said it’s easier for music to achieve altered mental states when the music goes on past normal time constraints. “I’ve always thought that with repetition, it takes a while for it to burn into your brain and really do something,” he said.

With the musicians trying to play with listeners’ minds, the name of the Fugue State festival seemed especially apt. In psychiatry, a fugue state is a period of amnesia in which a person seems to be acting normally and rationally—only to awaken without any memory of what just happened. “A temporary flight from reality,” as Webster’s New World College Dictionary characterizes it.

More than most kinds of music, drone relies on the perception of listeners. Listening to a long piece, you find yourself wondering at times whether you’re actually hearing subtle shifts in the music or whether it’s just an auditory illusion. “Sometimes it’s real, sometimes it’s imagined,” Miller said. “I like the slipperiness of that.”

Payne said, “I like how the brain starts to create its own addition to what it’s already hearing. It requires a bit of participation from the audience. It requires this conversation.”

The musicians in Chicago’s drone scene—or whatever you choose to call it—don’t claim that the city is unique. It seems to be one of the leading centers of drone music, they say, but artists in other cities are exploring similar long-form, minimalist, improvisational and drone-oriented music. These Chicagoans take inspiration from acts such as New York’s Double Leopards or Skaters, a San Diego group now based in Berlin. Perhaps Chicago is just a microcosm of a movement that’s happening around the world.

“Every town has at least a couple of bands doing it,” Krakow said. “It seems like more people are doing it.”