OK. Before going any further, I need to go ahead and post this link to the “Wild Night” video. Let’s just get that out of the way now, because you and I both know I was going to work it in somehow, and Meshell Ndegeocello’s new album, Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone, deserves your undivided attention. (Seriously though, that “Wild Night” video is one of the best things ever crafted by humans. I’m pretty sure it went in and out of style about 5 times in the few minutes it took me to rewatch it just now. Just incredible.)
I’ve been on a big Nina Simone kick lately, one that started in earnest when I stumbled across her To Love Somebody covers album a few weeks back. (I’ve been scouring record stores for the thing to no avail, though I did pick up a copy of The Amazing Nina Simone, which is, itself, amazing). Like so many others have been, I was struck by Simone’s ability to make songs her own, even folk standards that had already been revisited a number of times and Dylan songs that could not be more distinctive in their own right. Her voice is simply unstoppable. It’s an immensely powerful, singular method of expression that makes an indelible mark on anything it touches, and I know for sure that I’ll never hear the original versions of the songs on To Love Somebody the same way again.
So how on earth do you go about making an album like Pour Une Âme Souveraine? How do you interpret one of the great interpreters of music without the tool that made her great? It’s a really interesting question, and it’s one Meshell Ndegeocello answers with grace and creativity.
“Be My Husband” is the perfect test case — a song Simone brought to life with nothing more than her vocal chords and some bare bones percussion. I can’t imagine a blank slate that’s more difficult to fill in. Rather than aiming to match Simone’s acerbic delivery outright, or replacing it with utter sincerity as Jeff Buckley did, Ndegeocello enlists guest vocalist Valerie June, who sings with a devotional tone that picks up shades of anger from the menacing, fuzzy bass that kicks in at the 1-minute mark. It’s brilliant, and if I weren’t so afraid to use the word “irony” after that whole New York Times hipster-bashing shitstorm, I’d be tempted to say that this new rendition adds a layer of irony to a song that’s already defined by its wry, sardonic tone. The result is a wonderful testament to the bravery it took to make Pour Une Âme Souveraine, and I encourage you to preview “Be My Husband” below, along with the Cody ChestnuTT-fronted “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” If you dig ’em, click here to snag the album on iTunes.