Happy Anniversary: Nina Simone – High Priestess of Soul

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This turns 50 this year but no luxurious (read: obnoxious) reissues for this one (whereas for some reason they celebrated Who’s My Generation 50th anniversary last year when it wasn’t even the correct year for it). This one has been noted for being “poppier” than most of her other works: most of the songs are 2-3 minutes apiece, and there’s even a Chuck Berry cover, which basically means death in the anti-pop community that call themselves music lovers. As far as this one’s concerned, the album that would give her such a lofty (and deserved) title is just more evidence of the greatness of 1967, a year that’s often enthusiastically discussed for underground rock (the debut albums by the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart) and psychedelic rock (albums by the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Love, The Doors, Pink Floyd to name a few, and some of these delivered not just one but two offerings that year) but not enough for R&B.

In fact, the opening block of four songs is great, demonstrating why Simone is revered and showcasing this album’s breadth. The album opens with a ballad, which is followed up with two upbeat rockers (I struggle to think of another term) and then with another slow song. There’s the slightest quiver in the way she stretches certain words on “Don’t You Pay Them No Mind” (folks, that’s what real soul sounds like), and it’s a marvel to hear how she manages to keep up with “I’m Gonna Leave You”’s breakneck tempo while still moving her voice around (“I put up with your cussin’”), to say nothing of sudden volume increases to communicate the frustration (bolstered by the horns).

Yet, for her “pop” album, there’s lots of colour abound: a joyous burst of horns caps off the main hook of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (something not present on Chuck Berry’s original) while the following “Keeper of the Flame” opens with a lush clarinet intro. “The Gal from Joe’s” (a Duke Ellington cover, originally available on 1962’s Nina Simone Sings Ellington) sounds like the detective stepped out of the rainy street and into a smoky lounge to get some clues, and on the other side of the album, Nina revives “Work Song”, originally available on 1961’s Forbidden Fruit, with a headier instrumental thanks to the percussion distinguishing it from her previous attempt. Similarly, “Come Ye” isn’t much of anything outside of the percussion that she sings over, but that’s okay, since the background beat is the slinkiest of sounds.

Speaking of minor quibbles, the string hook on “Don’t You Pay Them No Mind” is obviously supposed to sonically represent Simone’s shoulder shrug to the people whispering about her and whoever she’s with, but it’s so loud and syrupy, it undercuts the soul of the song (I would’ve preferred something less airy to go with her earthier voice). And I think there could’ve been some easy moves to improve the song cycle: I personally would have opted to start the album with a bang (ie. with “I’m Gonna Leave You” or “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”).

Elsewhere, “Take Me to the Water”, the album’s most harrowing song, drops you straight into the upbeat “I’m Going Back Home” in one of the greatest sequencing moves of her discography: “Water” ends with her baptism and “I’m Going Back Home” sounds like the subsequent celebration of her new life. But “Take Me to the Water” – one of two songs here penned by Simone (the other is the aforementioned “Come Ye”) – is a great piece of work. Here, Nina Simone and a few male members of the gospel choir stick around after the service to make use of the empty space. It’s incredibly spacious, in other words, and if you haven’t already been won over by the piano intro, stick around for how the song ends: Nina Simone declaring that she’s no longer going to stay here while the piano cascades around her. Anyone fearful that Simone might have problems selling a clunky word like “baptism” in the song’s final cadence can rest assured: she’s sells it perfectly.

Happy 50th! It would have been nicer if I could find out the exact date that this was released so we could properly celebrate (Wikipedia, Alan Light’s What Happened, Miss Simone?: A Biography and all other sources I could find simply state the year of release), but this deserves celebrating even if I can’t find the facts.

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