[26 October 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Nina Simone cannot defend or dismiss the latest record label contrivance of her work. She passed away in 2003, leaving behind a five-decade legacy of music. Visit the Nina Simone section in any record store and it’s readily apparent that this legacy has been recycled and repackaged enough times to anesthetize even the most die-hard fan. Amidst a sea of collections that contain yet another “I Loves You Porgy” and “Mississippi Goddam”, Remixed & Reimagined arrives as a welcome addition to the High Priestess of Soul’s discography.
Following the remastered re-releases of Nina Simone’s RCA albums, RCA/Legacy serves up a collection of remixed material culled from the seven years Simone recorded for RCA Records (1967-1974). The premise isn’t entirely new since Verve Records remixed a few sides from Simone’s Philips Records era for their Verve Remixed series. It is, however, a successful premise: a remix of “Sinner Man” hit the Top 10 of the Billboard Dance charts in 2003 and “Ain’t Got No / I Got Life” entered the UK Top 30 in remixed form earlier this year. A whole album of remixes is an unwieldy proposition but producer Scott Schlachter wisely called on 13 different mix masters with 13 different styles to usher Simone’s oeuvre into the 21st century.
On albums like Silk and Soul (1967), Simone recorded a wide range of repertoire. Alongside her own compositions, she recast songs like “The Look of Love” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” into exciting interpretive excursions. As with the panoply of styles on Simone’s albums, the constant thread that stretches across Remixed & Reimagined is her inimitable voice. Fortunately, for listeners becoming acquainted with Nina Simone through this collection, that voice is kept intact on the remixes.
What is most compelling about Remixed & Reimagined is the variety of moods generated by each DJ. In the hands of Nina Simone, “My Man’s Gone Now” (from Nina Simone Sings the Blues, 1967) was an intimate, emotionally wrought spiritual. DJ Wally’s remix of the Porgy & Bess tune amplifies the stark timbre of Simone’s delivery with a melancholy bass and drum rhythm track. In contrast, the Nickodemus remix of “Oooh Child”, as in Simone’s original, cultivates a hopeful and optimistic mood.
The project also succeeds when the DJ’s elicit new meanings from the songs. Francois K triumphantly re-contextualizes George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”, the title track from Simone’s 1971 album. The original version bordered on drippy hokum, but out of this remix emerges a gay anthem. Francois K drenches Simone’s voice in beats that pulsate like tranquil, glowing rays of amber while the High Priestess quietly intones “It’s alright now / You can come on out now”. Chris Coco’s remix of “To Love Somebody” could easily follow “Here Comes the Sun” in a DJ’s set. Whereas the atmosphere Francois K creates is womb-like, “To Love Somebody” emerges with whirling mirror-balls and dry ice. Nina Simone devotees might cringe, but what keeps the listener engaged is the truth in Simone’s voice. Even if the remix track is completely synthetic, the edge in Simone’s raw performance compensates.
The most innovative track is courtesy of Jazzeem, who mischievously and lovingly remixes Simone’s stirring version of Ike and Tina Turner’s “Funkier than a Mosquito’s Tweeter” (from It Is Finished, 1974). Emphasizing the song’s original drum track and suspending the rhythm to highlight Simone’s voice, Jazzeem crafts a treasure trove of sonic details: he loops Simone’s chuckle and studio banter, incorporates a brief trip-hop section, creates a nervous laugh by isolating a syllable, and fades the song out with a brief coda of hypersonic drumming.
“Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter” proves that these remixes are destined to attract an audience beyond clubs and lounges because they’re listenable even in solitude. (The only exception being Tony Humphries’ interminable remix of “Turn Me On”.) Inevitably, listeners will have different reactions to individual remixes, but Remixed and Reimagined, as a whole, is an effective exercise in establishing a new context for the work of this sorely missed artist.