It’s been 20 years since Nona Hendryx last released an album; it took the political turbulence of the past decade and the emergence of the Occupy movement to inspire the veteran funk-rocker to get back in the studio to cut the tracks – nine originals and a re-do of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” — that make up her new recording, Mutatis Mutandis.
Hendryx’s career dates back to the late 1950s when she, Sarah Dash, and in 1961, Cindy Birdsong, joined Patti LaBelle in the doo-wop vocal group The Bluebelles, later re-christened Patti LaBelle and her Bluebelles. Birdsong departed to join The Supremes, and in 1970 the remaining members re-constituted themselves as Labelle, adding hard-driving guitar rock to their R&B and gospel base. The new style broadened their audience, yielding three gold albums and that indelible megahit about a Creole hooker, “Lady Marmalade”. Labelle’s concerts, with their soul-sisters-in-outer-space costumes and spectacular staging were, as I recall decades later, totally fierce.
LaBelle split in 1977, with Patti going on to a successful solo career as a histrionic diva given to swooping, whooping, melismatic overkill. Hendryx recorded several albums of her socially and politically outspoken songs with a roster of A-level collaborators that included Prince, Peter Gabriel, and Talking Heads, the best being 1989’s SkinDiver. In 2008, Labelle, Hendryx and Dash re-united to record the album Back to Now, featuring several songs Hendryx had written for the trio before the breakup.
The material she’s come up with for Mutatis Mutandis is patchy. But the good news is that she’s in fine voice, her soulful alto having lost none of its tone or power. Her all-out committed vocals make even the weaker tracks worth hearing.
Hendryx is pissed off about the current political scene; her targets include a much-hyped reactionary movement driven by racial resentment (“Tea Party”), environmental destruction and corporate greed (“Oil on the Water”), the status of young African American males (“Black Boys”), religion as a political weapon (“When Love Goes to War”) and an obese and obscenely right-wing media blowhard (“The Ballad of Rush Limbaugh”).
“Tea Party” kicks off the album with a blast of James Brown-style funk, Hendryx’s punchy phrasing in synch with the band’s strut as she disses the titular movement: “the all about me party / the hell no party / the shoot to kill party”. Hendryx works her gospel chops on “Let’s Give Love a Try” and “Oil on the Water”, the latter a nod to the Staples Singers, with Hendryx sounding very Mavis-y and the bluesy guitar evoking the style and spirit of Roebuck “Pops” Staples.
The rocker “Black Boys” starts off, well, cougar-ish, with the 67-year-old Hendryx praising young brothers “in tight blue jeans” and coyly wondering, “Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you happy to see me?” Then she lifts her gaze above crotch-level to ask, “Are you America’s nightmare / or an American dream?”
“When Love Goes to War” deplores people “pushing God on me” and declares “religion had its day / now religion has to pay”. But what grabs you isn’t the polemic but the Prince — the Purple One’s influence is all over this one, in the hooky chorus and in Hendryx’s falsetto. On “Black on Black”, she serves up clichéd musings about self-destructive behavior among African Americans (“black on black / serious as a heart attack”). But once again, as elsewhere on this album, the music compensates for the lyrics. The presiding spirit is Marvin Gaye’s, evident in the song’s chord structure and especially in Hendryx’s pleading vocal. (The track even opens with crowd sounds, a la Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up”, minus the party ambiance.)
The next to last track, “Strange Fruit”, is done as a rock dirge, with samples from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech interspersed with the original’s ghastly images of a lynching. The irony is definitely blunt, but Hendryx’s twenty-first century take on Lady Day’s bitter lament stings, especially given the unabashed racism all too evident in today’s body politic. As Bob Dylan recently said to Rolling Stone, “This country is just too fucked up about color”.
Mutatis Mutandis — Latin for “changing those things which need to be changed” — fittingly closes with “Mad as Hell Pt. 1”, wherein the economically-stressed narrator empathizes with a homeless woman’s even worse condition, damns the system that oppresses them both, and offers the Occupy movement as the logical response to the misery she sees on her city’s mean streets. I’m looking forward to “Part 2”.