Music Reviews
Castor, The Twin

Dessa Castor, The Twin

(Doomtree Records) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

I can’t work out why Minneapolis-based hip-hop collective Doomtree, of which Dessa is the only female member, are so under-recognised. The smattering of critical attention they’ve received has been highly appreciative, but they remain very much a “cult” group of musicians, with a small but devoted following. Between them they’ve been making some of the most finely-crafted, intellectual hip-hop of the last five years.

I know a few people who like the idea of hip-hop, but can’t stand hip-hop culture, and Dessa (along with Gil-Scott Heron, Saul Williams and certain Anticon-affilated rappers) is the sort of person I’d recommend to those people; she takes the idea of spoken-word delivery to music and uses it as a platform for social commentary and truly emotional songcraft. She’s also very focused on the melodic textures of her work, shifting between singing and rapping in most songs, with a delicacy often absent in the genre.

Castor, The Twin is a cross between a remix album, a live album, and a retrospective, as Dessa rehashes the songs from her previous releases (and one forthcoming song, The Beekeeper) with more organic arrangements. There are some really original ideas going on here; it’s a sort of “chamber hip-hop” record, replete with strings, vibraphone, guitars, mandolin, and timpani. The arrangements are innovative but not, as some exaggerations suggested, orchestral or overwhelming – all these instruments are used with restraint, with Dessa’s vocals very much taking centre stage.

In fact if anything I found the arrangements a bit lounge-y, not necessarily in a bad way, as it allows Dessa to fully inhabit her songs. While for some songs I think I prefer the original arrangements (Dixon’s Girl and Kites have some gorgeous samples, the essences of which aren’t quite captured live), many of them are improvements. For instance, the viola in The Chaconne becomes representative of its central character, the concert violist tragically devoted to his art. Alibi in particular benefits from the guttural upright bass and a menacing chorus – but still, an amazing moment is lost from the A Badly Broken Code version; after she raps “sometimes they say it’s the plain truth / 99 problems”, I expected her original exasperated “ugh!”, as she amazingly expresses disgust towards hip-hop sexism in a single grunt, but the expression is lost, and indeed, it’s indicative of some of the power lost from those originals.

The album’s title refers to the inseparable twins Castor and Pollux of Roman mythology: Castor was the mortal twin brother of immortal Pollux. Aside from the more human, performative feel of the record, it’s a reference to the songwriting styles on Castor. Dessa chose mostly her more biographical songs, (rather than her braggadocio side); she focuses on vulnerability. She can still show off – check out the range of her vocals on the incredibly quotable highlight Mineshaft, where she goes from the sung chorus to an almost conversational tone to a jaw-droppingly fast couple of lines and back again, in the space of a verse. But more often the songs are observational 2nd/3rd person explorations of characters, often shifting back into first person as Dessa puts herself into the positions she creates. She is a storyteller as well as a commentator on the situation, and blurs the lines between herself and her characters; at her finest it's remarkable to behold.

So while I’ve spent a while comparing these new arrangements to their counterparts, I happen to think that her records False Hopes and A Badly Broken Code were unreported works of genius from one of hip-hop’s most startlingly unique voices. If you’ve never heard Dessa, Castor, The Twin is a great place to see how much you were missing out on.