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Photograph by Roger Pistole

TJB enchants as the Southern Gothic lady of the lake.

True Blue

Tywanna Jo Baskette's haunting 'Fancy Blue' is uncommonly beautiful

By Sarah Quelland

RARELY DOES AN ALBUM as extraordinary and unusual as Tywanna Jo Baskette's Fancy Blue (Sweet Tea Recordings/Terminus Records) come along. It's amazing that this special album, which arrived just last Tuesday (Aug. 12), was even released at all. With her ghostly little girl voice, the strikingly eccentric songwriter from Nashville sings achingly simple songs filled with stark, childlike innocence and a reluctant grasp on death's place in the cycle of life. Her strange songs and short vignettes (she calls them "pass-alongs") exist in a strange Southern Gothic setting that's at once cruel and beautiful.

Music breathes like a light breeze whispering through an open field on the devastating "Gentle," where Baskette memorializes a neglected pony, singing, "I once saw a pony in the field there / All alone, all alone, 'cause no one cared / How strange the pony's name was Gentle / 'Cause no one cared, no one cared / He had curled hooves and matted, matted hair / He ate bad grass and died there." Sad strings mourn the pony's death.

Even more heartbreaking is Baskette's grief on "1985/1998" as she sings, unaccompanied, of the loss of her adoptive parents to lung cancer ("Winston taste good, like a cigarette should") and the death of her best friend, Kathy. The helpless longing in her voice as she sings, "I wish you were still here, dear Daddy," only increases the pain of this uncomfortably real song. Likewise, "The Name Song" (recorded a cappella by Baskette in her apartment) serves as a sweet and spontaneous remembrance of her beloved parents.

Her subject choices are fascinating. "Pretty Crazy Daisy" honors a flower growing out of season; "Parakeet" expresses regret for losing her pet bird when she was young; and "Thank You Mister" appreciates a favorite childhood toy. Meanwhile, "Valentine's Night" references unconventional writer Djuna Barnes (best known for her 1936 novel Nightwood), a likely influence on Baskette's own unbridled spirit.

The tranquil and lovely "Jellyfish" is evocative of the classic fable of the frog and the scorpion, as Baskette sings, "You sting me because you have to / I understand you / Pretty jellyfish" and incorporates the prayer "If I should die before I wake / I pray the Lord my soul to take" into her lyrics.

The jangly tambourine pop of "Pinky" (with its teasing chorus "He saw your pink underwear") is part Nancy Sinatra and part Disney fairy tale as she fantasizes, "Someday my prince will come, and he will call me Pinky." Meanwhile, the sultry sound of a pedal steel guitar gives the plaintive "Fancy Blue" a desolate Southern twang.

She frequently writes about animals. "I Love Goat Cheese" sympathizes with a milk goat ("Did they hurt your udders?") and finds Baskette rhapsodizing about her passion for goat cheese. The sorrowful "The Beautiful Cow" pities the stupid and beautiful cows ("All of the cows, they climbed up the hill to the ridge to have their baby / They would climb down to eat the green grass, forgetting 'bout their baby / My mom and dad would carry them down, 'cause if they didn't, they'd be dead").

Her abruptness and matter-of-fact approach are startling. Lines like "They'll never like me" ("Average Joe and Jane") tell how this accomplished model feels she is perceived by others. She celebrates gloomy rain on "Sunny Day" ("I'm brightest when the light is dim / I don't like the sunny day / It makes me feel so dark and gray / I go inside and hide away from sunny day"). On "Happiness and Misery," she gives the two contrasting emotions human characteristics, singing, "Happiness and misery love to hold hands and kiss behind the tree." Still, the bluegrass sounds of the dobro on "Howdy Howdy Howdy Do" and the playful silliness of the bubbly "Pop Pop" reveal her more upbeat side.

Her breathy vocals and complete lack of convention may not have mass appeal. Not everyone will be able to relate to her words or connect with her unique songs. But those that can will find that Tywanna Jo Baskette is one of the most naked and vulnerable, most honest and guileless voices to emerge in some time.

HOT TOPIC: Congratulations to Mike McGee, host of the Metro Silicon Valley Poetry Slam, who took first place in the Individual category at the National Slam finals in Chicago last weekend.

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From the August 14-20, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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