Wednesday, April 4, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1122: Dessa

I test drove a car yesterday and was mistaken for a musician. I won’t deny it felt good. Now I just have to decide if I want to buy the car…

Disc 1122 is… Parts of Speech
Artist: Dessa

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? A storm of hair. This looks great in a photo, but if you’re trying to cross the street with your hands full it is all kinds of annoying.

How I Came To Know It: I discovered Dessa through her 2018 album, “Chime” and dug backwards through her collection from there.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Dessa records (I’m on the lookout for a fourth). Of those three, I put “Parts of Speech” in third. Hey – someone has to be last.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

Look through my music collection and you want find very much pop-flavoured hip hop, but sometimes an artist is so good you forget your musical predilections. So it is with Minneapolis based pop/hip hop/spoken word artist Margret Wander, aka Dessa.

As noted above, “Parts of Speech” is not my favourite Dessa album but it is far better than most of vacuous hip hip suffusing every award show I mistakenly tune in hoping for better (are the I Heart Radio awards even a real thing?). Whether she is singing, speaking or rapping Dessa is not content to go on about status, possessions and empty anthems. Instead, she infuses her songs with courageous explorations of grief, mental illness, and very real expressions of power, grounded in experience and resilience.

The songs that are the most radio friendly on the album aren’t my favourites, but it is something of a crime that Dessa didn’t hit big with “Parts of Speech”. “Skeleton Key” is a pop anthem if ever there was one, with a catchy hook and a danceable back beat. Somewhere out there are some twenty something playfully bumping rumps, fist pumping and singing along to “Skeleton Key.” The thought gives me hope for the leaders of tomorrow.

Dessa is part of the music collective Doomtree (along with fellow Odyssey dweller P.O.S.). The Doomtree Collective prides itself on thought-provoking rap and innovative beats. Dessa does both and keeps it easy on the ears while doing it. “Warsaw” has some pseudo-African beats married to eighties inspired synth and a little jazz piano in the background.

The combination shouldn’t work but it does, partly because while she adds a lot of elements, Dessa keeps the arrangement sparse and gives it room to breathe and accommodate her raps. Those raps have an easy constant flow that makes you almost forget how furious and in your face they are. On “Warsaw” Dessa chimes in with:

“And I’ve done some living in a glass house
High note blew the motherfucking walls off
And I sleep
With both eyes open
Standing up
Alone and holding
Off the rust
And I’m still living by my maiden name
The name I came with
The name I made
And I’m bare-faced at your masquerade
Filled a flask up before I came.”

It is a message of unapologetic honesty and furious inner rhyme. If you don’t want to hear what Dessa wants to tell you, by all means shut the record off. You’ll only be hurting yourself though.

Annanabelle” shows Dessa’s softer side, delivering a lyrical poem over a classical arrangement she channels some kind of Gothic poet on the verses and then sings the chorus with the gentle lilt of an angel at sea. The song is about mental illness, so it is an angel lost at sea, but an angel nonetheless. Best line:

“You’re in the bathroom with a flashlight
You’re trying to weigh your shadow
Yeah, you say it’s gotten heavy, hard to drag across the floor.”

Halfway through the album, Dessa does a cover of Springsteen’s “I’m Going Down” and nails it. Her soft vocals bring a new vulnerability and uncertainty to a song that is already about the unsteady ground of a failing relationship.

Dessa isn’t afraid to push metaphor, working in songs like “Fighting Fish” and “Beekeeper,” the latter comparing the smoke used to keep bees docile with the dangers of being sleepy in the face of inequity. Heady stuff.

And for old-schoolers like me, “Parts of Speech” even has a nifty CD case, featuring a pull-tab system for checking out each the lyrics to each song. In 2013 this kind of printed extravagance was almost unheard of.

The only thing that holds this album back a little are the moments that feel a bit too soaked in pop production, and I would’ve preferred a starker approach. For stuff this thought-provoking it tends to let your ear gloss over the message in places where it is worth paying attention.

For this reason it comes in last in my collection, but still almost pulls out four stars.

Best tracks: Warsaw, I’m Going Down, Annabelle, It’s Only Me

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