I'm conflicted about Dessa's new record Castor, the Twin.
What it is, as a fact, is snapshot of Dessa's mid-2011 gigs with session players rounded up from the MacNally Smith College Of Music and Minneapolis' fertile hip-hop scene. (For the record, I saw it live and it was pretty awesome.) And it's really sparkly. It runs through her discography choosing more contemplative, pretty pieces presumably out of deference to the players. It's more wings than teeth, and that's precisely why it's hard for me to muster my enthusiasm.
Put simply: Dessa as a female emcee that sings places her in a very, very crowded league. Dessa as a female emcee that is at ease with Sylvia Plath, Bertrand Russell, and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez as she is with whiskey, going hard and rapping puts her in a league you can fit into a phone booth.
The original compositions, largely by Doomtree or like-minded friends are, more often than not, massive, driving affairs for whom nuance and delicacy is a low priority. That's not a criticism, but a statement of fact. Shit, Doomtree's summer record was called 13 Chambers. Dessa's session players, now presumably permanent members of her live band, have mixed results in reinterpreting Doomtree's aggressive productions.
In short: Where things are indelicate, Castor slips up.
The material from Dessa's 2005 False Hopes EP ("Kites," "Mineshaft" and "551") is most usefully reimagined. "Mineshaft" mostly survives the pretty sandpaper, even if on the ending, the drums are mixed too low or my expectations too restricting. My parallels are parochial. When I hear something close to the end of a song where it's a start/stop vocal and drum bit, I expect the drums to be miked up louder than God's hangover. Here, I think I know what they're going for and they miss the mark by my standards. But then again, this is a review of a hip-hop compilation with re-recorded tracks from jazz guys on Punknews.org. It's to Dessa and Doomtree's credit that everyone's a little exposed here.
Sometimes, though, the retouches work wonders. "The Crow" was a track I basically ignored on A Badly Broken Broken Code, and here it's a shining example of managing to tie together a bit of the aggressiveness of Dessa's delivery to the sumptuous players behind her. "Kites" was a song always meant for more nuance, and here, the assembly delivers a surer, superior version. "Dixon's Girl" originally was a lament over a very pretty woman treated with disregard by her husband somewhere in Mississippi. Castor's version, which drops the BPMs a bit, is much more elegant. There's a line, "Even the walls lean closer when she plays the piano real slow," which, on Castor, is where the piano part played by Dessa comes in.
It's worth admitting at this juncture, except to compare the original to the new version, I don't go back to the A Badly Broken Code version of "Dixon's Girl," or "Into the Spin."
For other tracks, it's not a lucrative impulse. There are words for what was done to "Mineshaft II" and few of them are nice. The song's tension is played down for far, far too long. And then, finally, around the middle of the third verse, when it does start to pay off, it pays off into cooing by Dessa and Aby Wolf, while the band behind them plays steady as she goes, draining the friction. Terribly little was added to "Alibi," except a piano that undermines the ominous narrative of the song. Whenever it comes in, I keep expecting Pepe LePeu to show up around the back of the confessional.
Castor, the Twin is a document, I keep telling myself. I think of it this way because it keeps me on point. It is meant to be pretty, and it is, sometimes overly so. Castor is proof that the woman is learning how to sing, I suppose. Let me soften that a bit. The translators are jazz guys. Their aesthetics and biases are different. Their strengths, obviously, are not in aggressive, relentless pieces. But if you're gonna play with Doomtree songs, one part of me says, you'd better get comfortable with them. What momentum or aggressive parts the originals had, it's a crapshoot if their energy is retained in these versions. That's not to say that the only virtue possible in this record is based on its fealty to aggressive productions, but instead that those parts are integral to the songs in which they appear and, sometimes, said abrasion is not replaced or rearranged quite deftly enough by the players for my liking.
These versions love to swell, but hardly ever do they burst. And that snapping feeling, the tautness loosed is something I find appealing about Dessa's discography. Castor is imperfect and streaky, in short, When the pretty songs are done right, they turn what they touch into the superior versions. When they're not, it I feel the absence the players perform around.
In Castor, Dessa unwinds and like the titular twin, it's for better and for worse.