Release Date: Dec 3, 2013
Record label: Graveface Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Experimental Rock, Vocal Jazz
Nina Simone was a fearless artist, and it also takes a certain amount of bravery to reinterpret her songs. With Nina, Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart pays homage to her restless talent and spirit instead of trying to re-create her sound. He finds his own voice -- literally and figuratively -- for these songs, and makes some provocative choices. Nina opens with one of its boldest tracks, a version of "Don't Smoke in Bed" where Stewart's voice sounds like it's been raked over the coals, brass erupts in fits and starts, and the overall mood is raw anguish instead of a wry farewell.
It's perhaps no accident that Xiu Xiu's most ambitious album in years is entirely made up of Nina Simone songs. Simone, not unlike Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart, was a restless and daring performer, interrogating the boundaries between jazz, pop, classical, and folk with incredible aplomb. Stewart has similarly excelled at treating genre labels as malleable, constantly positioning his ear for melodic pop against his more avant-garde tendencies, and with Nina, he and his partners have crafted an album in which Simone's spirit is lovingly refracted through a Xiu Xiu lens.
An entire record of Nina Simone covers is probably not how most people expected Xiu Xiu to follow last year's Always. Yet given the capricious nature of Jamie Stewart's avant-garde ensemble, it's unlikely to be a decision that surprises many..
Jamie Stewart is one of the most intense personalities in music today. Having battled depression for years — due to his father's apparent suicide back in 2002, as well as the disastrous presidency of George "Dubya" Bush — Stewart has continually channelled his energy into his collaborative art-pop project, Xiu Xiu. Continuing his form of musical therapy, his latest release is a meditation on the works of Nina Simone, an idea formulated after a bad concert in Austin and a good conversation with Michael Gira (Swans).Obviously, Stewart does not have the vocal chops of Simone, admitting as such in the press release, in his typically self-deprecating fashion, that her singing is way over his head.
NINA is a personal celebration of all the diversity, complexity, and artistic diligence that Nina Simone embraced throughout her career. It’s a bold and strident love letter that’s every bit as appalling as you might expect from a Xiu Xiu album, and yet, there remains a sincerity within the production that peeks between the cracks in this stark and miserable illustration of awe. To experience NINA is to become completely entranced by Jamie Stewart’s voice and Ches Smith’s musical arrangements, which are so painfully naked it leaves a stunned feeling of disbelief.
Cover albums should at this point come with low expectations. You think of things like filling contracts, overcoming writers block, maybe doing a favor for an old friend. And Sometimes you get a couple of decent songs out of it. But hearing that Xiu Xiu would be covering songs identified with Nina Simone on a new release, it was hard not get excited.
Pain was inherent and central to much of Nina Simone’s music, but it wasn’t necessarily the foreground. It was pulled at like taffy by beautiful jazz progressions and Simone’s otherworldly vocal performances. It was caught between the glimpses of the bedroom blinds where Simone’s man was smoking. It was in the rough edges of her voice, even as she was singing that she was feeling good.
Xiu Xiu — Nina (Graveface)Nina Simone, towards the end, didn’t think much of contemporary music. She disdained rap, and dismissed most jazz singers as untutored. She thought of herself as a classically trained musician, not a pop star. She turned to singing as a way to make money only after she was denied a scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.Her music, too, balanced raw emotional revelation with conservatory discipline.
There’s a small cult of late-period partiality in jazz: listeners who savor the poignancy of a great artist in decline. If this is your inclination, then you probably have deep feelings for Billie Holiday’s “Lady in Satin” and certain 1950s work by Lester Young. (Outside jazz, you’re inclined to like the albums Rick Rubin produced for Johnny Cash.) And you might bring special anticipation to “Paris 1969,” a previously unissued document of the pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, which Blue Note has just released in multiple formats, notably a CD-DVD combo.
Ummmm… Objective opinion gives way to descriptive metaphors when it comes to commenting on the seemingly random cacophony that inhabits this thoroughly bizarre opus from Xiu Xiu. Ostensibly a tribute to Nina Simone, it offers no hint or forewarning when it comes to mandating its purpose, no songs or suggestion that would lead the listener to note any ready identification with either the singer or her songs. Squawks, honks and bleeping horns, interspersed with intermediate shuffling percussion, all compete with Jamie Stewart’s odd attempts at vocalising, a sound akin to either a drunken warble or a terrorised gasp, and the realisation that all that’s left, and, indeed, all that’s called for, is a forced session of electroshock therapy.