NINA is a personal celebration of all the diversity, complexity, and artistic diligence that Nina Simone embraced throughout her career. It’s a bold and strident love letter that’s every bit as appalling as you might expect from a Xiu Xiu album, and yet, there remains a sincerity within the production that peeks between the cracks in this stark and miserable illustration of awe. To experience NINA is to become completely entranced by Jamie Stewart’s voice and Ches Smith’s musical arrangements, which are so painfully naked it leaves a stunned feeling of disbelief. In this respect, NINA is the ugliest Xiu Xiu record to date, and when taking Stewart and co.’s back catalog into account, that’s quite the accomplishment.
Stewart has continued to demonstrate a streak for prolificacy ever since he initiated Xiu Xiu in 2002. It’s resulted in 10 studio albums, as well as collaborations with Michael Gira of Swans, Liz Harris of Grouper, and, most recently, Eugene S. Robinson of Oxbow. Stewart also publishes Haikus — his second series, Onliest, came out in 2013 — and his self-proclaimed “Gothic Ballet,” Dark Materials, is scheduled for a Spring reprise in Vienna this year. There’s even a new Xiu Xiu release slated for February, set to exemplify the band’s “descent from grayness into the deepest blackness endurable.”
As a selection of cover songs, NINA sits awkwardly on the shoulders of these often rather glib and experimental escapades, even though Stewart has declared his admiration for Simone in the past. Indeed, this offering was inspired by a flaky show in support of Swans, and through the legendary, North Carolina-born singer, Stewart felt the determination to persevere with his own work by means of a tribute. It’s fitting therefore that he should continue along a line that’s both intimate and expressive, even if the results are irrefutably upsetting to endure.
A cover song should always expose a fresh take on the music at hand, and NINA certainly does that. It’s one of the record’s most thrilling attributes in fact. There’s no sense in a cover pertaining to exactly the same style and aesthetic as the original, which is what made Xiu Xiu’s Tu Mi Piaci such a curious listen. Their version of “He Needs Me” deposited a breathy baritone against minimal strings, which was delicate in instrumentation but also a lot fuller in vocal reach. NINA’s set of interpretations go beyond any expectation as to what the project’s namesake might have ever sounded like, but fuck, it also does very little justice to Stewart’s own vocal flair. I don’t think I’ve heard his voice sounding so withdrawn, airtight, and suffocated with restraint. While this is surely a personalized approach to a handful of classics, it’s also one that’s fraught with despair and tainted gratitude.
That’s a pretty hard sell. It’s a big ask for an audience to embrace the cold and dejected tones that Stewart musters, especially when they are riding on the back of the most cherished jazz, soul, and folk songs of the last century. Smith was employed to provide the musical arrangements for each piece, and due to his involvement in a number of Xiu Xiu albums over the years, it’s inevitable that some of the grit, grime, and noisier aspects of the band’s material are going to hemorrhage through into the mix. Take the screeching sax and the tumbling percussion frenzy of “You’d Be So Nice,” with such a daring crescendo it’s one of the most compelling tracks on here. Then there’s the rhythmic flail of “Pirate Jenny,” which has been covered by everyone from Ute Lemper to The Young Gods; the civil rights slant that Simone buried within the track is perverted (“Kinda grinning while I’m sucking,” “You fucks can say ‘slut finish them floors!’”); then, in a mad and frantic hash, Stewart flaps and wheezes into Smith’s fractured, merciless abyss, where frustration outweighs even the most fervent of celebratory passions; “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, why did they spare that one?”
There’s a sense of elation within these peculiar renditions, but the very feature that gives NINA its dramatic kick then splatters each song with an irksome goo. Simone is an important influence for Stewart, who has professed a deep love for her work and for the originality of her recordings — but the fondness he bears is presented through a distressed and bottled-up wheeze, which substitutes the vigorous vocal gymnastics seen on previous releases. Simone was an incredibly powerful and resonant singer, who is impossible to displace from the context of these songs, and that’s another reason why this collection is so difficult to endure. Where Simone stamped her name into the poetry of each lyric and the soul of every verse, Stewart caresses and pants his way across a repertoire in a fashion that’s intriguing, but also intensely isolating. While it’s clear that the album harbors a sign of affection, there’s just no room for the audience to revel in the appreciation that makes it so.