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Tribute to Nina Simone shows a love that burns unabated
Me’Shell Ndegéocello wears a cloak made of chameleon skin. From one album to the next, one never knows how she will sound.
She has gone the down-and-dirty funk route, she has played the alternative card, she’s been a rock goddess and an R&B temptress. She has been saucy (“If That’s Your Boyfriend [He Wasn’t Last Night]”) and she’s been political (“Leviticus Faggot,” among others).
What she has always been, however, is an unyielding force for good music, a queer crusader and a champion of all her various communities, and of the liminal spaces where they intersect.
For her new album, Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone, she brings a half-dozen friends to help on vocals, and a quiverful of Simone’s barbed arrows, which she lets fly with a love that burns unabated by the nine years since the blues singer’s death. The big ones are here, as are the lesser-known gems.
The album starts off on a high note, with Simone’s classic, and oft-covered, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” It’s a strong rendition, with a nod to the epoch of women’s alternative pop that hit in the late 1980s. Her vocals sound almost like Sinead O’Connor’s on The Lion and the Cobra, which is fitting, since O’Connor contributes vocals to the track “Don’t Take All Night.”
Toshi Reagon lends her aid on “Real Real” and “House of the Rising Sun.” The former is a sensuous ballad, while the latter is a disco-inflected funk song. It’s almost as though there is a clock counting down somewhere to the inevitable dance remix that will be shoved down our throats. The saddest part is, the song is so up-tempo that a remix isn’t even needed to get people dancing to this track.
Ndegéocello’s take on “Turn Me On” is oddly k.d. lang-esque. It’s got that lazy country drawl to it, and her voice is so soft and wistful through it that one can begin to believe she is singing directly to them.
The influences audible on “Feeling Good” are too numerous to mention. There is also a certain echo of another song I cannot quite place, but the combination of all the elements just sends a shiver up the spine. It’s a hot, sexy song, sung with all the coolness that just suffuses anybody who plays bass guitar. Someone should really do a scientific study on why bassists are so cool.
Her duet with O’Connor on “Don’t Take All Night” again brings a bit of the country crooner, the Patsy Cline if you will, and cements this album’s hip lesbian must-have status. It’s easy to imagine Me’Shell and Sinead staring into each other’s eyes as they sing this in harmony.
Her take on “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” with the assistance of Valerie June, sounds like it belongs on the soundtrack of a David Lynch movie. Ndegéocello gender-switches the lyrics to make it clear that her true love is a woman, which one can only imagine Nina Simone would have loved.
“See Line Woman” with Tracy Wannomae is a wonderful song, although it suffers in comparison to the original, which just seemed more powerful. Of course, comparing almost any cover of a Nina Simone song to the original is not particularly fair; the greatest of them are excellent, but all suffer in the comparison.
Cody Chestnutt contributes his vocals on “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” one of the songs most closely associated with Simone. He honors her memory on this track.
The album wraps with “Four Women,” sadly lacking the shrieked ending, “My name is PEACHES!” However, the power of the rest of the lyrics remains intact. The instrumentation and vocals are ethereal, otherworldly. It’s a fantastic rendition from a woman who is undoubtedly one of Nina Simone’s most prominent spiritual heirs.
Overall an incredible album, it would be impossible to define a single genre or type of person who would like this album. There is something for everyone, and those with truly impeccable taste will love just about everything about it.
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