Xiu Xiu – NINA (2013)

Xiu Xiu vocalist Jamie Stewart enlists Ches Smith and These Arches to record a Nina Simone tribute record. The resulting NINA is one of the weirdest records of 2013. The data: Stewart on vocals, Ches Smith/drums, Tony Malaby/tenor, Tim Berne/alto, Andrea Parkins/electric accordion, and Mary Halvorson/guitar. The truth: this album sounds absolutely nothing like Nina Simone.

Nina Simone’s power has always amazed me. Her use of sparse arrangements pushed distraction aside, forcing the listener to focus on the main point. And whether it be romance or civil rights, Simone’s point was always sharp. Her intensity could be a little frightening, and rightfully so, what with the subject matter of “Mississippi Goddamn” or the civil rights by way of Brecht in “Pirate Jenny.”

And what did Xiu Xiu do with that intensity? What does NINA sound like? Like a modern improvising jazz ensemble with a quirky lead singer? I guess you could say that. But that’s not going nearly far enough, and the key is Jamie Stewart. His normally somewhat breathy vocals are swallowed a bit and then pushed close to the microphone. With a trilling affect and halting delivery, Stewart sound like the unholy love child of Anthony Hegarty (Anthony and the Johnsons) and Scott Walker. Combine this with a backing band that can careen off into any direction effortlessly and you’ve got…seriously, I don’t know what the hell you’ve got.

Look no further that the opening “Don’t Smoke In Bed,” which has been transformed from a sultry torch song into something that wouldn’t be out of place in your average David Lynch/Twin Peaks scene. Yes, cue the dancing midget. Stewart’s warbly, nearly whispered delivery is by turns desperate and creepy. You can imagine the band playing offstage in the dark, during a nightmarish one-act play, the saxophones, accordion, and guitar pushing the edgy envelope with their dissonant intervals.

If this all sounds like Nina Simone being reflected in a fun house mirror (minus the “fun”), your instincts are correct. It may turn out that a little further down the road, I’ll change my mind and say I hate this record. For the time being, I’m really enjoying it, even if it does scare the heck out of me every so often.

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he writes several weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.