NINA SIMONE The Best Of Nina Simone (RCA)
NINA SIMONE To Love Somebody And Here Comes The Sun (BMG Camden Deluxe)
NINA SIMONE Emergency Ward, It Is Finished And Black Gold (BMG Camden Deluxe)
"The Best Of Nina Simone" is a straight CD reissue of a 1970 compilation of the same name, which means a sub-40 minute running time, a barren lack of anything resembling sleeve notes and an idiosyncratic track listing that bizarrely omits both of the UK top 10 hits Simone scored whilst with RCA ("Ain't Got No - I Got Life" and "To Love Somebody"). On the positive side of the equation I managed to pick up a copy from W H Smiths' recent sale for 2.99, and it does contain vast tracts of great music.
Simone has been called the high priestess of soul and the poet laureate of the civil rights movement, and whilst both sides are documented here her music encompasses a great deal besides. A live cover of The Bee Gees' "In The Morning" opens proceedings gloriously; a jaunty, faux-psychedelic pop song with lyrics about ice cream cones and rainbows is invested with something deeper and more resonant here. It sounds glib to suggest that Nina's version of "I Shall Be Released" can't help but have more clout than any by Bob Dylan or The Band, but, recorded as the civil rights movement boiled over, the aching, longing and hope that powers the song could hardly be more clearly elucidated. In such company the likes of the snaky "Day And Night" can't help but sound like simple, undemanding pop music and an unworthy conduit for her talents. The darker, bluesier material, such as the self-penned "I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl" and Gershwin's "My Man's Gone Now" - here performed as a volcanic tussle between bass, piano and voice -are much nearer the mark. "Why? (The King Of Love Is Dead)" captures the post-MLK sense of incomprehension and doubt, marking Simone out as the protest singer that Dylan had lost interest in being. The sophisticated emotional manipulation of Jim Webb's "Do What You Gotta Do" is lovely, but pales compared to the final track, the undoubted highlight of this brief collection. Simone's interpretation of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" is a cruelly ignored classic. With its glorious, skipping piano line and jangling acoustic guitar, this version babbles like a brook, being totally different to, and vastly superior to, Laughing Len's marvellous original. It helps no end that Nina has the kind of voice that makes following the words an absolute pleasure rather than a duty, and, when you get down to it, isn't that the whole point?
"To Love Somebody And Here Comes The Sun" is a lavishly presented (slipcase, erudite booklet discussion) CD containing her 1969 and 1971 albums in their entirety, reprising a few moments from the compilation above, "To Love Somebody" beginning with that shining Cohen moment. Simone brings a gospel fervour to previously sparse folk (and latterly folk-rock) material such as "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and "The Times They Are-A-Changing)", then goes all guns blazing on the two part "Revolution", a song so musically and lyrically close to the Beatles' equivalent it's slightly shocking in these litigious times that nobody from Liverpool earns a co-writing credit. This strident politicking is slightly at odds with the rather more laid-back tenor of the album (although arguably not with companion pieces such as the Dylan and Seeger referred to earlier), and the Floydian maelstrom with which it culminates hasn't aged gracefully, but as an expression of Simone's convictions it can't be dismissed. The title track is the album's big hit, in which Nina takes the Gibbs' candyfloss pop and turns it inside out, although maybe not as completely as on "In The Morning". An alternately doleful and joyous "I Can't See Nobody" is cut from the same cloth as that Jimmy Webb cover, but her version of "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues" is something else again. Sultry, slinky and seductive, it's totally different to the harsh electric wail of Dylan's original, flowing to a rhythm all its own. Brimful of confidence, at one point she ad-libs with what sounds like exhausted resignation, "Well, that's it, folks, that's it."
"Here Comes The Sun" is a brighter, poppier experience, seemingly by design. The clouds lift during the first few tinkling seconds of the opening title track and never really gather again. That title track is all harp, harpsichord and lavish string arrangement, a chamber pop confection that just about remains on the sweet side of sickly. It's questionable whether her supper club showstopper rendition of "Just Like A Woman" improves Dylan's acidic poetry, but when she shifts the final chorus from the third to the first person the listener is wrongfooted (wrongeared?) once again. "O-O-H Child" is gorgeous, optimistic, revolutionary soul, a brilliant take on a song I'm only familiar with from samples and soundtracks. Having grown up with Neil Diamond's recording of "Mr. Bojangles" it's hard to hear any other interpretation without thinking it sounds plain wrong, but this gentle, pattering shuffle is about as restrained and subtle as you could ask for unlike the brash narrative that shatters "New World Coming", which has aged gracelessly. "How Long Must I Wander" is the album's one real jaded moment, the regret and bitterness bubbling under its immaculate surfaces providing a welcome counterpoint to the almost-slushiness of "Angel Of The Morning". And finally she transforms the distasteful self-aggrandisement of "My Way" into something more artfully valedictory - her soaring singing and a leaping, elaborate arrangement sending the song way over the top, but in a good way. Both albums are a joy, in their own polished way, and a useful further exploration of the same territory mapped out by "The Best of Nina Simone".
"Emergency Ward, It Is Finished And Black Gold" collates three live albums, recorded in 1972, 1974 and 1969 respectively, in a handsomely packaged double CD set. Released immediately after "Here Comes The Sun", "Emergency Ward" is an entirely different proposition altogether, as its original cover - conflict-torn newspaper headlines with the title spelt out across them diagonally in blood-dripped lettering - makes abundantly clear. Not completely live - one side featured new studio recordings - it opens with a crowd predominately composed of black GIs at a New Jersey military base chanting "We want Nina!" like they're baying for fresh kill, which is arguably what they get. The concert portion of the album consists of just one song, an eighteen minute reinvention of George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord", which twists and writhes from a joyous affirmation of faith to a desperate, questioning plea, morphing into the David Nelson poem "Today Is A Killer" on the way. The uncredited band are so ferociously well-drilled they seem to operate telepathically during the abrupt stop-start sections late in the song. As the performance broils to its climax, Simone concludes "Today, who are you lord? You are a killer!", as the Bethany Baptist Church Junior Choir punctuate her blasphemous revelation with an almighty "Hallelujah!". It's an astonishing moment, leaving the studio-bound remainder of "Emergency Ward" trailing soberly in its wake. "Poppies" is a complex, tussling thing, punctuating gentle, languid soul with blasts of Blaxploitation soundtrack. Whether the message deeply entwined in the song is anti-war, anti-drugs or both is unclear, but it works all ways. Finally, 11 minutes' worth of piano and vocal autopsy on George Harrison's "Isn't It A Pity" hardly outstays its welcome.
"It Is Finished" is slightly less unconventional, although its title celebrated Nina's bidding farewell to America, her RCA contract and militant reputation. The opening gambit - a version of Steppenwolf's "The Pusher" - might seem on first encounter an unorthodox song to cover, but at the fag-end of the "Superfly" era it appears entirely appropriate, especially when Nina threatens "I'd kill him with my Bible, my razor and my gun" at the impassioned, tumultuous climax. Memories of the school assembly dirge "Kumbaya" are obliterated as Simone reinvents it as "Com' By H'Yere-Good Lord", complete with skittering piano line and jangling guitars, restating the doubt of "My Sweet Lord" as a somewhat sweeter pill. Ike And Tina Turner's "Funkier Than A Mosquito's Tweeter" is exactly that, and "Mr. Bojangles" trots out again in a swirl of gentle understatement, highlighted by some twinkle-fingered piano. "I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl" is slow, steamy blues again, although the mid-song Bessie Smith dedication seems a little superfluous. There's something darker and more disturbed at the heart of "Dambala", around which flutter droning sitar wraiths. The mood lightens instantly with the uncomplicated, heartfelt romance of "Let It Be Me", whilst the sparse, prickly "Obeah Woman" brings it all back home, wherever home might be from now on.
"Black Gold" opens promisingly with Langston Hughes' poetry sliding down a torrent of Miles Davis riffs, but the euphoric mood temporarily subsides during two versions of "Black Is The Color Of My True Love's Hair". "Ain't Got No-I Got Life" soon improves proceedings: rescued from "Hair", in Nina's hands it's a pungent anthem of fierce defiance that whips the crowd up into a frenzy, especially the line "Still got my soul, though it's been strained a little lately". "Westwind" follows it with 9 minutes of voice and sparse, hypnotic African percussion. During one of her slightly rambling between-song pronouncements she confesses that "because we're recording we're trying to do things that we're too tired to do", sounding utterly exhausted before leading into an unlikely and lovely interpretation of Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where The Time Goes", and it's all folk music, and it's all sweet soul music, and it's all showbiz, with the crowd showing mad, deserved appreciation during the instrumental coda. "Not too loud now", she commands before a slow, steady and slinky version of "The Assignment Sequence", which "talks about lovers, the gap between lovers especially married lovers!". The feel of the occasion and the artist is caught perfectly before the premiere of "To Be Young, Gifted And Black" - "It is not addressed primarily to white people, though it does not put you down in any way, it simply ignores you There are 22 million blacks in this country, I only want one million to buy this record!" - the ensemble then swaying gently into a clattery but obviously heartfelt performance.
These live albums could be a little too much Nina Simone to take in one sitting, and certainly they might have benefitted from some stern-fingered editing to generate a truly vital single disc set - Simone's banter often threatens to overwhelm proceedings, and it certainly dates them - but even in their current form they offer a fascinating, frequently mordant, document of the artist entertaining and educating her audience.
NINA SIMONE Misunderstood (Snapper Music)
The somewhat downbeat title of this compilation shrouds a double CD of Nina Simone recordings, one disc of studio performances, another drawn from concert appearances. The booklet is light on the source and age of the tracks - reading between the lines the studio disc at least is sourced from the late 1950s and 1960s, prior to her period with RCA - but pleasantly informative on her 60-year journey from North Carolina child prodigy to exile in the South of France.
The studio tracks are almost uniformly great. After the showy, upholstered pop/soul/jazz of the RCA albums reviewed in the last issue, these sparse, spare arrangements are as bracing as a cold shower. Two versions of "My Baby Just Cares For Me" are included here, along with a slow and stately rendition of the self-penned "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands", a world away from the school assembly cacophony I remember from childhood. Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo" and Count Basie's "Good Bait" up the jazz quotient, but it might be instructive to consider that these songs were as much the popular music of the day as the Cohen, Dylan, Bee Gees and Beatles covers were on "To Love Somebody" and "Here Comes The Sun": there's no question of pandering to commercial pressures in those later works, it's just Nina continuing to do what she's got to do. But on these more rudimentary arrangements it's the forceful delicacy of Simone's piano playing that astounds the most - the singing we already know about. She takes "You'll Never Walk Alone" from a lullaby to a roar, her playing giddy with melodic diversions, and builds "Little Girl Blue" on a foundation of "Good King Wenceslas".
The live CD is less conspicuously successful: some of the recordings seem rather fluttery and distant, and there's nothing here that really approaches the alchemical firebrand of "Emergency Ward, It Is Finished And Black Gold". Nevertheless, "The House Of The Rising Sun" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" are cast in forms that The Animals would barely recognise. "Mississippi Goddam" is frozen fascinatingly in time with its references to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. "The Other Woman" is familiar from Anne Sofie Von Otter's collaboration with Elvis Costello, although the unnecessary repetition of the song's entire lyric seems to lessen the effect of the final kiss-off. "Four Women" makes up for the former's sapped potency, a shattering slap-down of prejudice and stereotype. And Simone's reputed cantankerousness rears its suppressed head on the closing "I Sing Just To Know I'm Alive", repeatedly hectoring the audience with shouts of "How come I didn't have a full house tonight?".
For that first disc, the informative booklet essay and the budget price, though, "Misunderstood" is a worthy purchase for anybody attempting to broaden their understanding of Nina Simone's work.
NINA SIMONE Nina Simone Sings The Blues (Speakers Corner)
Arguably, this 1967 effort doesn't do exactly what it says on the tin. Perhaps little, verging on none, of the material it contains is strictly, traditionally blues, and there are many comparatively upbeat songs that don't seem to operate within the genre's emotional territory, few of them shouldering another's burdens to make light of their own. Maybe the feel of the album justifies the title, though, at least on the songs that tell of loss, disenfranchisement and heartache. "My Man's Gone Now", from the Gershwin opera "Porgy & Bess", definitely qualifies a spontaneous, single take performance in which an exhausted Simone's vocals and piano are accompanied only by an electric bass. It's a rich, dynamic highlight, especially when compared with the more considered, big, bold and borderline brash arrangements that dominate the album. Co-written with poet Langston Hughes, the civil rights protest "Backlash Blues" could be the soundtrack to troubled times in America. Alan Price gets the sole songwriting credit on "The House Of The Rising Sun", which seems a might contentious given that Nina was performing the song years before The Animals recorded it. Here it's played almost like a Yardbirds-style rave-up, Simone wailing and moaning in tongues towards its close.
In more contemporary content, "Do I Move You?" is smoky and sassy, steered by the force of Nina's personality like a prototypical Grace Jones. There's something quasi-feminist in its stridency and assurance, as if territory is being claimed. (It's kind of undermined, though, by the following "Day And Night", which is, at best, only tangentially a sisterhood call to arms.) "I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl" is testament to her sometimes overlooked songwriting ability, although its roots in a Bessie Smith tune perhaps explain why it sounds like a classic from way back.
Speakers Corner's vinyl reissue doesn't sound exceptional, unfortunately. It's a bit crude and rough sonically, with a serrated, rusty edge to Nina's voice, especially towards the side ends. Still, maybe that's really what the album sounds like.