Released: 3 December 2013 (Graveface)
To make an artistically interesting cover song is a difficult thing to do. There are some cut and paste covers that bring me personal enjoyment despite the fact that they aren’t really adding anything new to the piece. But for the most part, it is a somewhat shallow pleasure, an excited gawking at the novelty of two artists I enjoy being aware of one another. Personally with covers, the more profound feelings to be had are reserved for those artists that completely recontextualize a work. They lift the core of a song out of its cozy nest of genre, instrumentation, tempo or even harmony and carry it to new and unfamiliar heights. On Xiu Xiu’s latest output, Nina, he not only succeeds in doing this with one Nina Simone song, but eleven of them.
Due to my relative ignorance when it comes to Simone’s work, I choose to listen to this record on a track by track basis, first taking in her original and then listening to the new Xiu Xiu version. I would highly recommend this method of listening to anyone who doesn’t have Simone’s catalog memorized. The reason for this is that Xiu Xiu forcibly contorts these songs to the point where they are unrecognizable; even after just having heard the originals it’s often difficult to decipher exactly where the cover material is from. For Xiu Xiu changes not one, but all four of the previous musical qualities up for reforming in a song cover. With genre and instrumentation, the silkily lustrous piano soul music of Nina Simone is molded into horrifically stupendous free jazz with at least a six piece group. The tempo varies wildly from Simone’s slow burning masterpieces, with many explosive starts, the opening of the record serving a prime example. And don’t even get me started on harmony! With the multiple soloists improvising as recklessly as possible all at once, the number of combinations they use of all twelve tones is astounding (see “You’d Be So Nice,” with a video directed by Andy Warhol). And of course, there’s Jamie Stuart’s voice, possibly the most glaring departure from SImone’s performances. His voice is harrowing and whispered, fluttering on and off a pitch as it shakes with an unsettling intensity. The sheer amount of deviations from Simone’s work renders these superb pieces mangled nearly beyond recognition, and Nina is all the better for it.
The alterations on this record are extreme and significant, yet Xiu Xiu in no way disrespects the memory of Nina Simone. The surprise undercurrent of horror he shoots through her songs certainly cannot be overlooked. However, though this might seem out of place within her jazz/soul context, it fits surprisingly well. This connection begins to make the most sense on “Pirate Jenny,” a song from 1928’s The Threepenny Opera. This is probably the least altered song on all of Nina. For what reason Xiu Xiu have to change a song that is already so disturbing to start with? The song tells the tale of an abused maid that dreams of a black freighter coming in to wreak a murderous revenge. Its an interesting cover choice for Simone, a person who probably had to undergo a good deal of abuse herself while being a black woman in the mid-20th century. She perfectly channels the spirit of the song; you can really imagine her being the character she is playing. Here, with Simone given the connotation of this ghoulish character, one can see why Xiu Xiu might have found a kindred spirit with her. Once this connection is made, it begins to crop up again and again within the other songs chosen here. There is a darkness to all of her songs; not a one is fully free of pain and longing. Even her famous rendition of a song with a title like “Feelin’ Good” is swathed in the agony her voice simply can’t deny. Though I’m not at all well versed with Xiu Xiu’s work, with titles like Dear God, I Hate Myself, an album cover like this one and the overall character of Stewart’s voice, it is obvious they have a similar predilection towards gloominess. On Nina, Xiu Xiu does a fantastic job of burying deep to find the most ominous elements of Simone’s repertoire and distilling them into a wild, frenzied puree of hellish jazz that sounds simply incredible.
Overall, I really loved this album. Free jazz often feels like a wonderful trip down the rabbit hole, and Nina is no different. In fact, the trip is accentuated if anything by the absolute insanity that is Jamie Stuart’s voice. Though I must admit that his is certainly a voice that takes some getting accustomed to, I was surprised to find how quickly I grew to know and enjoy it. The song choices are impeccable as well, all memorable and ripe for the picking to be resituated into an extreme music context. More than anything, Nina succeeds as the ideal tribute album. Were it not for this record I would not have the love nor the respect for the woman that deserves it so. I’ve come to realize her way of expressing pain in a universal manner is unmatched. Anyway, I think it certainly did a much better job at paying homage than any Kanye sample has (especially not this one!). Nina goes down today as my favorite cover album of all time. It shows us the amazing way that people with such profoundly different backgrounds can connect over a mere common thread of suffering. Music shines at its brightest when it finds connection and beauty in troubling times, and on this record Xiu Xiu does just that.
Rating: Loved It