Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Kat's Korner: Nina Simone -- Golden

There's only been one Nina Simone. Either you love the majesty of the voice or you don't. She was an artist who refused to be bound by one genre and she more than lived up to my motto of "It is what it is." Simone never begged you to love her.

From the start of her recording career, she seemed to emerge fully formed. Layers were added with years, but she never had to find herself musically. The confidence is there in her piano playing and it's there in her vocals. Some found her "too cool" meaning distant.

Not distant from her material but they could never penetrate the persona. So, if you're someone Nina Simone's never spoke to, you can stop reading right now.

I'm not big on greatest hits. Or "Best of . . ."s. I can take a genuine live album and really get behind it -- all the quirks, all the messed up bits, but . . . Even the boxed sets don't do it for me these days. They've gotten so polished to the point of being lifeless. There's usually the "hits" disc and then the rest of the collection attempts to round it out.

So when a member e-mailed me about a "collection" -- "The Solid Gold Collection," no less -- I wasn't jones-ing for a listen. Solid Gold? Brought back too many memories of the Dionne Warwick show and all the dancers on the verge of flying over whomever was lip synching their hit that week. (Not everyone lip synched.) "The music is magic . . . You know you can catch it . . ." or something like that is how the theme went. Thanks, I'll pass on 'catching' the 'magic.'

Then another member e-mailed. They not only raved over the collection, they raved over the price. I ended up getting mine for less than ten bucks at Tower Records. Two discs, 36 songs.

Yeah, I bought it. Me who thinks that most collections are like gorging on left over candy the morning after Halloween. (By the end, the gluttony's left you with a queasy stomach.) The second e-mail came from a member who knew nothing about Simone's work prior. Now your "critics" would probably have dismissed the woman right there. If she didn't know Simone's complete discography, the triumphs and downfalls, and her batting average, how could she know anything?

But music's not athletics (though some of the boys onstage and off never grasp that -- add to that some of the singers, of both genders, who think running scales is an Olympic competition). Music, good music, is passion. And the collection inspired the woman to write about music like I've rarely seen. Then I remembered the first e-mail and how he went on about what a "great price" it sold for. We live in a Bully Boy economy, any breaks we can get, we should grab.

Buying it, I felt like the skinny clerk with small saucers in his ear lobes was smirking, "Best of buyer!" On the drive home, I had a panic attack thinking, "Oh my God, I've just purchased the equivalent of those really bad collections they sell at the gas stations, on the front counter, next to the Bic lighters and Rolaids."

I almost didn't play it when I got home. Any excuse to avoid dealing with the excessive plastic that we sell our new CDs in here in the United States. But I remembered the passion of the woman who e-mailed. I took the plastic off the cardboard box, took the CDs out of the box and unwrapped them. Not knowing whether I should be winded from all the effort or offended by the waste, I pushed the plastic to the side on the coffee table, grabbed the stereo remote, pulled out System of the Down and Stevie Wonder, and dropped both discs inside.

Here's the only bad news: There is no booklet. The box tells you there's a booklet. There's not. There are two fold outs of the "front covers" (I'm sure there's a term for those things but I have no idea what it would be). So what you've got are linear notes. Disc one's linear notes contains a brief essay on Simone's life and career (heavy on life) as well as a track listing that offers you a sentence on each song (I believe three songs actually receive a second sentence). Disc two's linear notes only offers up the track listing and the single sentence (except for three songs that get two sentences). That's not a booklet. I'd also recommend that you don't take at face value what's presented in those sentences. I caught one mistake and Simone's always been someone I've focused on the listening experience with. Experts on facts and factoids may catch more.

Disc one starts out nice enough with tracks that are from her first album. You get "My Baby Just Cares For Me." That's track six and it's amazing how, for so many, Nina Simone's recordings begin and end there. Track eleven begins the live versions through the end of the disc (sixteen tracks on the first disc). Track two offers twenty tracks and every one is a live track.

Is that why I love the collection so much? I'm not sure. I'm also not sure when these tracks were recorded. The linear notes aren't interested in that. "Mississippi Goddamn" (a Simone classic) features shouts outs to a variety of people. "Everybody knows about . . ., goddamn" includes the names Michael Jackson, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and more. For those unfamiliar with any version of this song, the linear notes inform you:

A fiery political track condemning racism in the south, written around the time of Birmingham church bombing and the assassination of Medger Evers, it seethes with indignation and been recorded by Simone several times.

Forget the sentence "review," all you need to do is listen. That song gets a mention on the box cover as does "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" which, hopefully, even non-Simone fans know via Aretha Franklin's version off her Atlantic album of the same name. On Simone's live version ("addressed to the Black students at Berkeley"), she's got the audience singing along.

If these live tracks were all from the same concert, that was some concert. "Pirate Jenny" is one of the obvious standouts. The notes (well, "the sentence") calls it a "playful take." I don't hear it as playful at all. Nina Simone seems to revel in exploring this song about, to use today's terms, "the insurgent." On the verses, it is true that music is sprightly, it's also got the feel of the theme from The Addams Family (TV show, not movie). That didn't strike me as playful. While Jenny goes about the chores of making up the beds and being unnoticed as any thing other than a servant girl, the music matched the lightness Jenny's showing the men who will soon be meeting their fates -- about the time that they learn she's "Pirate Jenny." If there's an energy in the verses, it's a giddiness of "You have no idea." Maybe I'm misunderstanding the linear notes use of "playful" and "humorous"? I think Simone's inhabiting this Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht song, not sending it up.

You gentlemen can wipe off that smile off your face
Cause every building in town is a flat one
This whole frickin' place will be down to the ground
Only this cheap hotel standing up safe and sound
And you yell, "Why do they spare that one?"
That's what you say.
"Why do they spare that one?"
All the night through, through the noise and to-do
You wonder who is that person that lives up there?
And you see me stepping out in the morning
Looking nice with a ribbon in my hair

Here's what else I know, disc one has some fine moments. But I'd buy this set just for the second disc which plays out like a single concert. From "After You've Gone" to "Do What You Gotta Do," it's as though you're at a table near the stage, nursing the best wine in the place, kicking back and grooving.

You may enjoy the first disc more. Maggie does. I passed it on to her as she continues to nurse her illness of He Didn't Call Like He Said He Would! Simone didn't snap her out of it, but it did provide her with another topic (a relief for everyone).

Disc two has the Langston Hughes and Nina Simone composition "Backlash Blues" as well as "Sunday in Savannah," "The Other Woman," "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and the Simone classic "I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl."

If you're new to Nina Simone, you'll probably enjoy both discs. If she's an old friend, consider the first one the "bonus disc" that so many CDs come with these days. It's not bad. It's just that most old friends already know and love Simone's first album. The wonders come in the second disc. That's the one you're not going to want to loan out.

Again, two discs for less than ten bucks. It's The Solid Gold Collection and the box is gold, with Simone's name in purple and a photo of her wearing a bob hairstyle. If you're smart, you'll grab this up before the label, Union Square Music out of England, realizes what a treasure they have.

Maybe I can fix things up so they'll go
Whatsa matter Daddy
Come on save my soul
Drop a little sugar in my bowl

[This is the second of Kat's two musical commentaries this week. Last night's was "Kat's Korner: Cat Power's Greatness."]