Blank Expression 

A faux-naive cast mars local singer-songwriter Tywanna Jo Baskette’s otherwise intriguing debut

A faux-naive cast mars local singer-songwriter Tywanna Jo Baskette’s otherwise intriguing debut

Tywanna Jo Baskette’s broken-china baby-doll voice whispers, cracks and throws tantrums on her debut album, Fancy Blue (Sweet Tea/Terminus). That voice combines with the subjects of her songs to create an impression of total vulnerability and innocence.

Indeed, the Nashville-based singer, who plays Aug. 12 at Slow Bar, sounds like she’s 6 years old. In “The Name Song,” she corrects the pronunciation of her name with a child’s preciseness. Her sing-song rhymes ring of the nursery (“Pretty Crazy Daisy”), and she frames simple stories in oddball referents—a lover called “Fancy Blue,” a horse named “Gentle.”

Fancy Blue exists in a V.C. Andrews world of drama, shame and exclusion. “Happiness and Misery” paints extreme mood shifts, while “Pinky” describes a titillating/traumatizing childhood experience when someone saw her underwear. In “Average Joe and Jane,” Baskette both mourns and celebrates her social alienation. (Maybe, she observes wryly, she ought to get a perm.)

“Trouble” is barely audible and terribly sad: “No one loves me no one cares,” she sings, like a whisper from the bottom of a well. In reaction, the singer identifies intensely with animals. Observing a “beautiful cow” in trouble, Baskette recites, “Help the stupid and beautiful.” She draws parallels to human behavior in “Jellyfish,” lamenting fatalistically, “You sting me...because you have to.” Amidst the farmyard and nursery, Baskette’s reference to the avant-garde Modernist writer Djuna Barnes in “Valentine’s Night” reminds the listener, rather jarringly, that the singer is an adult.

The arrangements on Fancy Blue couch Baskette’s delicate voice in a variety of low-key roots-pop settings without drowning it out. The barest possible country guitar makes “Fancy Blue” and “Howdy Howdy Howdy Do” seem like they’re emanating from a dream barroom. “Trouble” and “Gentle” employ gauzy strings, while “Pinky” adds clacking percussion to a reverb effect that makes Baskette sound like she’s singing through a telephone. “Everything Is Awful” uses music box bells.

Willful artlessness, blank affect and a focus on the banal are, of course, the point of Fancy Blue. However, by the end of the album, the single-minded childlike demeanor and baby-doll vocals become annoying, and the nonsensical close rhymes start to grate. Presumably, Baskette sings off-key on purpose, but the fact that it’s an artistic statement doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to listen to. Asking a goat if its udders hurt during milking (“I Love Goat Cheese”) takes the wounded drama and animal identification over the top.

Tellingly, the album’s strongest songs, “Howdy Howdy Howdy Do” and “1985/1998,” reveal a more adult perspective, not to mention a sense of humor—and, in the latter, a more complex collage structure for the lyrics. Fancy Blue is striking and unusual, and the completeness of its vision is admirable, but no adult’s album should regress so completely that it ends with a giggle.

—Danielle Dreilinger


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