An entire record of Nina Simone covers is probably not how most people expected Xiu Xiu to follow last year's Always. Yet given the capricious nature of Jamie Stewart's avant-garde ensemble, it's unlikely to be a decision that surprises many.
Stewart's provocative and emotional approach is the perfect fit for Simone's own powerful sonic impingements, and the peculiar dovetail of the artists' styles starts to make even more sense in this 11-song tribute to the late great jazz chanteuse.
It is a disorienting experience to hear Simone's punctuating keys replaced with incongruous saxophone parps and almost non-existent drum rhythms. "See Line Wome
n" is stabbing and immoral; "The Other Woman" evolves into a deep swell of lovestruck hopelessness; and "Flo Me La" is a loosely-stitched jazz freak out.
Stewart's unfathomable intonations are central to the record, which does its best to emulate the muted neo-baritone of Simone while emitting its own quivering gulp of emotion. So divisive and unsettling is Stewart's delivery that it can prove as destructive as it is captivating, such as during the formless "Don't Smoke In Bed."
Much like Simone's own live performances, there's no middle ground here. What Stewart has produced is a wild, discordant plunge into the legacy of a legend; a visceral interpretation that could only emanate from his creative bowels. Nina would approve.
First published here for Under the Radar