I picked this next album out of the new (to me) section of my CD collection in anticipation of seeing Dessa in concert at the Philips Backyard Weekender. A review of that show follows the album review below.
Disc 1160 is… Chime
Year of Release: 2018
What’s up with the Cover? Dessa’s giant head, casting out-of-phase reflections of some kind. Like Dessa, this cover is imbued with a lot of energy.
How I Came To Know It: The boring way – I read a review of this record and decided to check it out. I really liked a couple of the singles and before long, I was hooked.
How It Stacks Up: I have three albums by Minneapolis rapper Dessa. Of those three, “Chime” comes in at #1.
Ratings: 4 stars
Modern music is infused with way too much pop-crossed hip hop, but listening to “Chime” reminds me that even an over-mined art form will still yield a gem every now and then. Every Dessa album is such a gem, but “Chime” is her shiniest yet.
When she feels like it, Dessa can write some pretty glossy pop songs; the kind of music that should be making her millions if only she wouldn’t insist on being so thoughtful and provocative. Radio pop cannot currently abide this, but at least Dessa shows that there is hope for the future.
On “Chime” pop rears its surprisingly non-ugly head on most of the songs, with catchy hooks in the chorus that are original compositions rather than wholesale samples from the ghosts of hits past. With the exception of the saccharine “Boy Crazy” I liked them all and most have something important to say as well. Sometimes they are intensely personal as with “Good Grief” and sometimes they are intensely political as with “Fire Drills” but they always have something to say.
“Fire Drills” is the star of the album; a pointed song that explores unfair standards we apply to women’s sexuality. Dessa’s B.A. in Philosophy is put to good use as she builds the argument that women are taught to be careful, but only because society is set up to present them with threats. I could say more, but she says it better:
“We don’t say, ‘Go out and be brave’
Nah, we say ‘Be careful, stay safe’
In any given instance that don’t hurt
But it sinks in like stilettos in soft earth,
Like the big win is a day
Without an incident
I beg to differ with it
I think a woman’s worth
I think that she deserves
A better line of work
Than motherfucking vigilance.”
For Dessa, walking home late is like running a fire drill, sticking to safe plan and hoping nothing bad is going to happen and she refused to accept that safe is good enough.
“Chime” is multifaceted, and in addition to pop hooks too good for radio, and unapologetic social commentary she incorporates classical piano, strings and hints of electronica. All of this is fused with a smooth modern production that suggests attention to detail in the studio. In their pure form many of the influences tend to put me off, but Dessa does such a good job of blending them into something new and compelling.
Dessa’s rap has a smooth lyrical flow that slips in and out of the beat without ever losing it. “5 out of 6” and “Fire Drills” are songs with messages; challenges to her detractors and to society at large that are the highlights of the record, but I also have a soft spot for a little 45 second number near the end called “Shrimp.” “Shrimp” is Dessa showing off her mad skills, but it is also self-deprecating and fun, with lines like:
“Dolled up I’m the baddest person
Still like backpacks over purses
Hate that Qs are 2s in cursive
Talk real fast when I get nervous
Rap real fast, but that’s on purpose.”
It makes me wish I could pal around with her for an afternoon. The thought also makes me a little nervous knowing that she’d be quick and very capable at calling me on my bullshit.
There is a bit of “not famous yet” through the album but it doesn’t feel resentful. Dessa wears her indie-rap status as a badge of honour, or as she wryly puts it “I’m tryna get rich slow.” For all that, to assume Dessa is happy to settle, you’d be wrong. This cocktail of humour, activism and ambition is best summed up with the final lines of “Shrimp”:
“Always a bridesmaid
Never an ASTRONAUT!”
If Dessa is a bridesmaid, she’s one that comes to the wedding wearing whatever the hell she wants and who delivers the speech at the reception that no one wants to follow.
Best tracks: Ride, 5 out of 6, Fire Drills, Velodrome, Good Grief, Shrimp
The Concert: July 22, 2018 at the Phillips Brewery Backyard Weekender – Victoria
I am not a festival person. I don’t like the outdoor venues, I’m nervous about the sound quality and I always imagine unpleasant encounters with drunken rubes. However, I also knew that this was easily the best chance I was going to have to see Dessa live, and so I bit the bullet and went.
All of my festival fears were unfounded. The venue was clean and welcoming, the people were friendly (there was a random dude spritzing water on people in the beer lineup but I think given the heat he saw this as a public service). Even the sound quality was top shelf.
I went to the show with my friend Amanda, and we arrived to find it fairly quiet. I suspect the combination of last weekend’s “Rock the Shores” event and it being a Sunday night combined to make the event a little less populated than it otherwise might have been. I had been dreading being pressed in with the sweaty masses, so the smaller audience suited me well.
There were seven different bands playing the Backyarder on Sunday, but I only wanted to see Dessa and so we arrived about 30 minutes before she started. We did catch the end of a hip hop band called “The Sorority” which made me wish I had come earlier. These three gals had a cool flow and a fun, party-time energy. We enjoyed the last couple songs of their set and then grabbed a couple of beers and prepared for Dessa.
We were not disappointed. Dessa commanded the stage with a powerful presence that immediately drew the crowd in. When she started, there might have been thirty people in the audience, and by the time she was done an hour later a few hundred had gathered.
Dessa had a good mix of banter and music. Even when she was just talking, her natural talent made it feel like a spoken word performance all its own. The songs were a strong mix of about 2/3 her new album and 1/3 earlier material, all of it well chosen to showcase both her pop and rap sides equally well.
Dessa’s fantastic skills on the mic were on full display, as she shifted from hard core rapper to pop crooner and back again with an easy grace. I suspect these are complicated songs to perform live but she made it seem not only easy, but a whole lot of fun.
While she is clearly the star of the show, Dessa deftly brings her backing band into the spotlight at every opportunity. In particular the drummer is amazing, and to my shame I can neither remember his name nor find it on the interwebs. Her playful exchanges with him are filled with mock competitiveness but what really comes across is that there is a lot of love there.
For her final two tracks she climbed down off the stage and into the audience to sing “in the round”. On stage she was maybe 20 feet from me, and once she came down to ground level she was even closer. It was pretty awesome.
After the show, Dessa mingled with the crown and I was able to meet her. In the past I have been totally flustered meeting some of my musical idols (see: Lindi Ortega, Lera Lynn) but Dessa seemed easygoing and approachable and I think I was able to communicate my love for her music in a reasonably intelligible way for a change. She even gave me a fist bump and then graciously posed for a picture!
All photos by Amanda who not only kept me company but ensured I would not be “lonely old guy sipping his beer alone”. Thanks, Amanda! After the show we got an extra pint at the Churchill where we were served by a Dessa lookalike named Reed Steele, who I am pretty sure is a superhero who just tends bar to hide her secret identity. All in all, a pretty fine summer Sunday afternoon.