Nina Simone is a legendary singer/songwriter and pianist known for her involvement in the civil rights movement. Her music was jazzy, soulful, and often carried a heavy message. The woman had a great voice and her music fantastic. This review isn’t about Nina Simone –at least not directly. Xiu Xiu, a modern avant-garde band took it upon themselves to play some of Simone’s greatest songs in their latest album, NINA. Without spoiling too much, Xiu Xiu maintains their experimental style and applies it to Simone’s music. It’s an interesting mixture that yields some crazy results.
In all reality, this isn’t an album for Nina Simone fans, so considering a full on cover/tribute album is a bit taboo. The music itself is fairly accurate, Xiu Xiu does include the original melodies, but from there, it’s all different. A change of tone isn’t bad, but the end result is alarming and terrifying. Xiu Xiu takes deeply emotional, soulful songs and turns them into nightmarish, deprived monstrosities. For instance, Simone’s song “Just Say I Love Him,” originally sounded deeply sentimental; but Xiu Xiu’s version comes off like a mentally ill individual crying out for their muse. It’s as disturbing as you can hope for. Comparing the lyrical line, “Tell him that without him all my dreams are all in vain,” is like comparing night and day.
The difference between Simone and Xiu Xiu’s works are so radical, comparing them is almost moot. They’re different, that’s for sure. The question here is whether or not Xiu Xiu’s perspective on Simone’s music is warranted. I can’t be sure what the members of Xiu Xiu were thinking when they took on this project, but it seems like they were drawing the line between socially acceptable and deviance. It is important to understand Simone covered a variety of topics, and her song, “Four Women,” is very much about racial and gender related prejudice. The instrumental piece reflects each woman’s part in the song, the singers are powerful, sincere, yet civil and fair. When Xiu Xiu takes on “Four Women,” the song suddenly becomes clamorous, vicious, unclear, and noisy. It’s the difference between a socially acceptable diplomat and a rioting, deviant activist.
Xiu Xiu’s take on Nina Simone can best be described as the Hyde to Simone’s Jekyll. It’s that dark, ugly side of humanity that we’re not supposed to show. It’s pure genius and while not truly a full on tribute to Nina Simone, it is definitely an interesting new take that justifies itself. More than anything, Xiu Xiu’s execution seems to stay with you the best. Often time, melodies are slightly changed or scrapped in exchange for far more experimental, jazzy pieces that really give an unsettling and eerie atmosphere. The vocal bits are more of a sing-talk that sound like they’re lines that belong to one of Tim Burton’s characters. This isn’t some musical marvel, but a lot can be learned from this album –like how to really set the mood.
Xiu Xiu’s album is unique, but in a good way. It’s the degree of creativity you come to expect from the band, and then some. The changes in music are tasteful and often really awesome. The horns are magnificent, especially when things get really free-form in nature. The band can get really crazy and it’s just plain good.
Overall, Xiu Xiu’s NINA is as weird as it is good. Unfortunately, this definitely isn’t an album for everyone, but that’s okay –not everything has to appeal to everyone. It is however at times disappointing that there isn’t at least a track or two more accessible for the Nina Simone fans out there. As far as being a cover album though, it’s pretty great. Xiu Xiu has done everything necessary to really give a new spin on some old favorites and show what a cover is really all about –new interpretations of old songs.