Nina Simone was a fearless artist, and it also takes a certain amount of bravery to reinterpret her songs. With Nina, Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart pays homage to her restless talent and spirit instead of trying to re-create her sound. He finds his own voice -- literally and figuratively -- for these songs, and makes some provocative choices. Nina opens with one of its boldest tracks, a version of "Don't Smoke in Bed" where Stewart's voice sounds like it's been raked over the coals, brass erupts in fits and starts, and the overall mood is raw anguish instead of a wry farewell. It sets the tone for the rest of the album, which runs with the more progressive aspects of Simone's music instead of the traditional ones. Stewart pushes himself vocally and musically, and Nina is some of the most avant-garde music he's made in years (that the idea for the album came about while he was touring with Swans sheds more light on its aesthetic). He recruited players -- Tim Berne, Tony Malaby, Mary Halvorson, and Andrea Parkins -- with roots in avant jazz to honor and expand on the most tumultuous side of Simone's body of work, and Nina's wiry arrangements and instrumentation allow them to follow Stewart nimbly. They create a shivery, late-night atmosphere for "Don't Explain," incorporate Afro-pop and funk into "See Line Woman," and let the righteous fury of "Four Women" seep into seething brass and hectic drums. Nina's quieter moments are no less impressive, whether it's the relatively faithful but not slavish rendition of "Wild Is the Wind," which preserves the melody's moody beauty, or "The Other Woman," which he imbues with the poignancy that has driven many of Xiu Xiu's finest songs. Along with celebrating the boldest parts of Stewart and Simone's art, Nina marks the return of Xiu Xiu's uncompromising side at its often exhilarating best.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares