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Meshell Ndegeocello - Pour une âme souveraine - A Dedication to Nina Simone

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Artist: Meshell Ndegeocello

Album: Pour une âme souveraine - A Dedication to Nina Simone

Label: Naïve

Review date: Nov. 16, 2012

Nina Simone’s been in the entertainment news of late thanks to the controversial casting of Dominican-American actress Zoe Saldana in a planned biopic of the influential shoot-from-the-hip chanteuse. Meshell Ndegeocello is unlikely to generate commensurate media coverage with Pour Une Ame Souveraine, a tribute to Simone in song, but the project brings up some analogous questions of authenticity and intent. The younger songstress has followed a genre- and gender-subverting career path in ways similar to Simone, at least in spirit, by favoring mercurial muse over stylistic straightjacket and sacrificing commercial security in the service of artistic integrity. While hardly earning the honorific iconoclast, she’s had an admirable run thus far. The musical nod to Simone makes sense.

Hedging her bets, Ndegeocello taps a cadre of a half-dozen colleagues in a series of duets, among them Toshi Reagon, Sinead O’Conner and Lizz Wright. She casts her song net comparatively wide, pulling in Simone originals along with covers like Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and the folk staple “Black is the Color…,” both of which Simone made indelibly her own. She doesn’t shy from radical reinvention either, a move that while risky, isn’t without the potential for rewards (cf. Dylan’s “Watchtower” might as well be a Hendrix song at this point). “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” starts the program on strong footing, replete with luminous synth washes, spares blues guitar riffing, and a corpulent electric bass foundation.

Regrettably, the results don’t always return on the risks involved. “See Line Woman,” one of Simone’s most haunting and deeply sensual songs, has much of both attributes bled from it through the introduction of a heavily processed tropical rhythm loop and Ndegeocello’s tumescent electric bass as intrusive marker for the anchoring vamp. Masters at Work achieved a much more satisfying synthesis with their earlier stab at the song on the now long-in-the-tooth comp Verve Remixed by hewing closer to the source material. The closing rendition of “Four Women” echoes elements of Björk in its lushly ambient atmospherics, with Ndegeocello managing through her drowsy delivery to capture a large part of the soulful profundity in the quartet of racially-charged portraits painted by the lyrics.

Ndegeocello’s husky intonation seems like a natural proxy for the crushed velvet-voicing of Simone, but there are various junctures where she overdoes her affectations, retracting into a muffled whisper that very nearly confuses mystery with lethargy. The strategy works on “Suzanne,” where her throaty voice contrasts with the bright, bubbling up-tempo beat in a manner that brings to mind Joan Armatrading. On the other side of the scorecard, “Nobody’s Fault…” is little more than a skeletal fragment with Ndegeocello and Wright trading off to the simplest accompaniment with ultimately little to show for it. “House of the Rising Sun” is the opposite with equivalent results, a frenetic dance floor affair that buckles under the burden of a relentlessly pummeling assemblage of electronic beats to the detriment of everything else.

Though Ndegeocello doesn’t completely succeed in making any of the songs memorably her own, the disc does directly address questions of authenticity and relevance. Simone’s legacy remains impervious to and apart from the diminishing returns of any tribute, whether musical, cinematic or otherwise. The chorus of “Misunderstood” works as a prescient summation concerning the mixed success in Ndegeocello’s good intentions. Impossible to gauge how the famously ornery Simone might have viewed the venture, but there is solace in the adage that earnest imitation remains the highest form of flattery.

By Derek Taylor

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