By Jack Spencer
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By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
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By Zach McCormick
By Jeff Gage
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Nina Simone had a voice as rich and bracing as strong coffee, and rarely used any cream or sugar to leaven her blackness. This month, six weeks after her death at the age of 70, BMG/Heritage showcases those earthy vocals with Anthology, a two-disc collection culled from six labels over 36 years. It is at once a marvelous and frustratingly inadequate document.
Simone's artistry is the antithesis of today's diva template. Her stark phrasing disdained the self-indulgent melisma that Mariah and Mary J. now strut, and her class- and race-oriented politics were contemptuous of bling-bling materialism. In its chronological array of 31 songs, Anthology evokes her lightning-rod importance during the heyday of the civil rights movement. Simone's live 1964 recording of "Mississippi Goddamn," which was banned in the South for its condemnation of the titular state's resistance to integration, is prefaced by her remark "I mean every word," and then takes her audience from uneasy titters to stony silence within two scalding stanzas. Her chilling rendition of "Strange Fruit" and her politically charged portrait of "Four Women," both from 1965, are also included. So is her angry, anguished eulogy, "Why? (The King Is Dead)," recorded three days after the King assassination.
Before the "Queen," Aretha Franklin, came to prominence, Simone was dubbed the "High Priestess of Soul," and her proletarian passion was fueled by personal history. Raised in a preacher's family in rural North Carolina, she attended Juilliard to refine her piano skills but was denied further classical training at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute because she was black. Her sophisticated empathy for class and cultural boundaries is evident on 1959's "The Other Woman," where her arch depiction of someone who "finds time to manicure her nails" moves seamlessly to genuine pity because that woman will "always cry herself to sleep" and "spend her life alone." It remains manifest in the heartfelt expiation of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," the territorial tenacity of "I Put A Spell on You" (far more riveting than Screamin' Jay Hawkins's cartoonish original), and the dismissive glee of her take on Hall & Oates's "Rich Girl," recorded nearly 20 years after "The Other Woman."
It's a cliché for diehard collectors to quibble with the choices of a compilation. Yet it's a shame that only four songs came from the nine albums Simone recorded for Colpix from 1959-64, her most soulful period. Anthology does include her definitive rendition of the blues chestnut "Trouble In Mind," but inexplicably avoids anything from her timeless Forbidden Fruit record, even her unforgettable version of Oscar Brown Jr.'s "Rags and Old Iron." The notoriety Simone engendered from her political activism led to a series of (often topical) minor hits in the late '60s, when the rock-oriented fashion of the flower power era cluttered her sound, so they are naturally included. But otherwise, it's probably not coincidental that RCA/BMG Heritage selects an inordinate amount of her work for RCA.
One obvious solution to these limitations would have been to extend the length of this package to three or four discs. Although Simone's recorded output languished after 1971 (a period represented here by only two songs), there is enough quality material from 1959-71 to double the size of this package. That said, Anthology is a sound investment for Simone beginners, offering enough of a taste to have you scouring the crates at yard sales and Goodwill stores for more of that inimitable black coffee.