On the album Pour une ame souveraine, pop-soul stalwart Meshell Ndegeocello impeccably performed songs associated with the jazz and civil rights icon Nina Simone. A little more than a year later, Jamie Stewart, the unstable center of the 12-year-old experimental group Xiu Xiu, offers an altogether more, well, peccable alternative.
Generally, Xiu Xiu cobwebs together singer/songwriter fare, art-rock and synth-pop with gritty strands of noise and free jazz, but its defining feature is Stewart’s uniquely wounded voice, accentuated by panicky confessional lyrics about car crashes and attempted suicides and abortions. It’s not immediately clear why such a musician should want to add a song as sedate and wistful as “Don’t Smoke in Bed” to his repertoire, except to scandalously Xiu-ify a sacred cow.
But Stewart has said that he identifies with Simone as a provocateur, and while we can question the equivalence of the real boundaries Simone pushed and the abstract ones Xiu Xiu pushes, it’s credible that he approached the music in earnest. He’s just not always certain what to do with it, and his Nina winds up as an oddly tentative experience — often interesting but never, like its subject, transporting.
The sinewy arrangements were written by frequent Xiu Xiu collaborator Ches Smith, who performs percussion alongside several saxophone, guitar, piano, synthesizer and accordion players with pedigrees in the world of avant-jazz. The music, though requisitely deconstructed and smudged with extended techniques, isn’t too daring or abrasive. And rather than trying to approach Simone’s level, Stewart all but cedes her the field, singing in a choked murmur that conveys vulnerability but not much range.
“Wild is the Wind” is a highlight simply because Stewart articulates some of the notes instead of biting off atonal syllables. “See Line Woman” kicks off a lively stretch that peaks with an enthusiastically demented “Pirate Jenny,” where Stewart channels a host of different voices. He comes to life on up-tempo numbers, but on the torch songs, his husky vibrato-wrecked whisper sounds much the same in one place as another. The record tries to balance reverence with Stewart’s habitual ghoulishness, but each winds up diluting the other, making for an experience that’s hard to interpret emotionally. Still, the fine musicianship and sometimes chilling recasting of familiar lyrics makes Nina more than a curiosity.