Nina Simone is what you might call a problematic artist: sometimes unbelievably moving, other times unbearably self-indulgent -- and sometimes both, in the same song. As her career progressed, the latter quality unfortunately won out. La Simone got shriller and shriller, more and more grandiose, until she finally disappeared, flying into the ozone like some kind of wicked witch (eventually to make various semi-comebacks). But just before she got out of control (that would be the early '70s), she had an apotheosis. In the late '60s, her intensity still focused, she went from cabaret-style soul-jazz chanteuse to quasi-pop star, coming up with tremendous, definitive covers of songs by rockers and folk-rockers like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen and (of all people) the Bee Gees. These are my favorite Nina Simone songs, the heart of "Sugar in My Bowl" (those who prefer Simone's earlier, cafe-society style should get her '96 collection "Anthology: The Colpix Years" on Rhino). These songs go with me to the desert island, or the bunker, or wherever.
Though no doubt Simone is prouder of other things, she carved out an unlikely specialty, "Best Interpreter of '60s Bee Gees Tunes," recasting the Gibbs' fey ballads into powerful incantations: "To Love Somebody" and "I Can't See Nobody," massive and brooding as thunderheads; "In the Morning," which elevates the Gibbs into first-class gospel composers; and "Please Read Me," which becomes a gorgeous piano showpiece. ("Sugar" is sprinkled with Simone's under-recognized piano brilliance, including a funky, previously unreleased jazz jam, "Jelly Roll," the alternately wonderful/awful "Another Spring" and "Here Comes the Sun," where Simone wastes some wonderful, spare playing on a treacly arrangement of the George Harrison tune.)
No other singer could make a bathetic shmatta like Jimmy Webb's "Do What You Gotta Do" so caring, and careworn; nobody could telescope more emotion into a single, idiosyncratically turned syllable (listen to the way she says the word "Savannah" in her spoken intro to "Sunday in Savannah." It breaks your heart -- and she ain't even singin' yet!). She cuts Dylan dead on "I Shall Be Released," which she turns into pure church (more great piano here); "Ain't Got No/I Got Life" makes the "Hair" cast sound like hamsters, and a previously unreleased take of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" is loose and flowing and infinitely knowing.
The last song, "22nd Century," is the worst thing I've ever heard in my life.
THE 9 VOLT YEARS: BATTERY POWERED HOME DEMOS AND CURIOS (1979-198?) | RAZOR & TIE
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-->BY MARK ATHITAKIS | For anybody who still loves Marshall Crenshaw's first three records, this assortment of home demos and song sketches are essential -- and not just because it recovers the perfect pop of "You're My Favorite Waste of Time," the long lost B-side to "Someday Someway." It offers a peek into the growth of a great songwriter in his early-'80s prime, lo-fi stabs at ideas and influences that would get hi-fi treatment on record: a successful stab at Burt Bacharach on "Everyone's in Love With You," countrypolitan song structure on "I'm Sorry" and an instrumental take on "Blues Is King" (here, "Bruce Is King"), which displays his knack for guitar melodies rooted in rockabilly. The only sour note is "That's It, I Quit, I'm Movin' On," proof that Crenshaw was always too clean-minded to play the blues as roughly as they deserves.
Thing is, "The 9 Volt Years" may be essential for Crenshaw's detractors as well, those folks who wrote off his debut as too Buddy Holly, "Field Day" as too overproduced or "Downtown" as too unfocused. In these relaxed, unstudied songs is proof that Crenshaw was looking for something more valid than simple nostalgia; he wanted to distill the energy and eternal themes of sock-hop pop and remind people of how much truth still resides there, how modern it truly is. His records show the version of truth he came up with. "The 9 Volt Years" shows how much he enjoyed looking for it.
A FAMILY AFFAIR | VERVE
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BY EZRA GALE | The term "crossover album" is a touchy subject in the jazz world: Either they're million-selling hits that introduce a wide audience to jazz-flavored music (like Herbie Hancock's "Headhunters") or they're watered-down efforts that end up pleasing neither a jazz nor a mainstream audience (like just about everything else).
Bassist Christian McBride's latest album, an uneven foray into R&B and funk, actually winds up somewhere in the middle. Things get off to a good start with "I'm Coming Home," a rollicking, New Orleans-style tip of the hat to the Meters that sets a funky, all-day block-party mood. The next several tracks, however, wouldn't sound out of place piping over a supermarket sound system -- including a slow jam ("A Dream of You") with crooner Will Downing and instrumental covers of Sly and the Family Stone ("Family Affair") and Stevie Wonder ("Summer Soft") that lack the grit of the originals. McBride's playing isn't the problem -- it's so flawless and inventive that he even makes us forgive him for sticking a lengthy bass solo into every track -- it's that on the whole it feels like he's being overly reverential with each style and doesn't want to sully them.
Things don't heat up again until toward the end, when "Wayne's World" and "Open Sesame" jettison the R&B approach in favor of a more exploratory feel evocative of late '60s Miles Davis. The music opens up, and McBride and the band members -- Tim Warfield on sax, Charles Craig on electric piano and Gregory Hutchinson on drums -- sound like they're really pushing themselves instead of reading from a '70s funk fake book. The contrast is startling: The two tunes almost sound as if they were outtakes from another, more interesting, album. It's proof that McBride is more than capable of turning heads when he wants to -- but unfortunately, for most of "A Family Affair," that doesn't seem to be the goal.
HELL AMONG THE YEARLINGS | ALMO SOUNDS
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BY JOE HEIM | Critics love to stick it to Gillian Welch because the country singer grew up a sun-kissed L.A. city slicker and learned to play bluegrass in the piney hills of Santa Cruz. But maybe authenticity isn't all it's cracked up to be. Nashville's swimming with Cadillac cowboys and female singers who look more like Barbie dolls than farm hands. Besides, there's not much chance these days of finding a barefoot Appalachian girl who plays guitar and sings like she was raised on moonshine, old-time religion and high-lonesome hollers.
On "Hell Among the Yearlings," her second CD, Welch evokes the spirit and sound of early Carter family and traditional bluegrass recordings. The only thing missing is the pop and crackle of a needle riding imperfect grooves. On "The Devil Had a Hold of Me," "Miners Refrain" and "Rock of Ages," you can almost picture Welch sitting on a broken-down porch, banjo in her hands and shotgun by her side. But too often the imitation goes beyond flattery. Consumed with proving her authenticity Welch seems to have forgotten to be herself. Unless she plans on a career as a Smithsonian exhibit, she would do better to write more songs like "Whiskey Girl," "My Morphine" and "Winters Come and Gone," brilliant songs that draw from the rich tradition of the Appalachian sound without simply replicating it.