Friday, June 1, 2018

Past Greatness: May '18

Welcome to the 18th installment of Past Greatness, a monthly series I'll be doing showcasing great, older works. All albums listed below are of 8+ quality. This month's album journeys all the way to the Civil Rights movement where a battered and bruised housewife unravels a tale of inequality through the eyes of Judgement Day

Nina Simone | Pastel Blues
1965 | Soul | Listen

Throughout her career, and even long after it, Nina Simone was perpetually misunderstood. Even famed poet Maya Angelou posited the question: "What happened Miss Simone?" Unlike many other inexplicit artists, perhaps the reasoning for Simone's ill-defined stature doesn't lie on the fans feigning ignorance, but rather the singer's own inner-battles that propagated her singular multidimensionality. Released in 1965, Pastel Blues was one of Simone's first records to capture her broiling political activism, brought on friend and playwright Lorraine Hansberry. However, the time hadn't yet come for Simone to ditch her innocuous Pop Standards, causing Pastel Blues - in accompaniment with the imperious presence of her husband and manager Andrew Stroud - to crash from turbulence at a crucial crossroads. The result is a gloriously provocative and undercut look at racial tension and gender inequality during the Civil Rights movement.

Many mitigate Pastel Blues' nine tracks and 35 minutes into the backhanded compliment; "The album with 'Strange Fruit' and 'Sinnerman' on it." Before contrarianism erodes the credentials of this review, yes; 'Strange Fruit' and 'Sinnerman' are the two best pieces here. However, to exclude the previous seven tracks from memory would provide great injustice to the power Simone imposes on those final two. See, 'Strange Fruit's' morbidly elegiac take on African-American lynchings in the south and 'Sinnerman's' rolling tide of Judgement Day juxtapose themselves brilliantly against the backdrop of a kept and beaten housewife whose knowledge far exceeds that of cooking and sewing. The simpleton musings on tracks like 'Trouble In Mind' and 'Ain't No Use,' that draw on Soul and earnest Doo-Wop, work two-fold: 1. As lovable diddies that exhibit Simone's off-stage theatrical tone, and 2. As jarring scenic spots that ultimately reign with death and destruction. Even the lyrics of these aforementioned songs, and others like 'Chilly Winds Don't Blow,' fail to associate with the buoyant nature of the PG production, speaking, more often than not, about fateful suicide and that sweet release.

These layman struggles reach their darkest hour in 'Be My Husband,' and not necessarily for the song itself but the context that surrounds it. The song - a plea for traditional 60's 'equality' in a marriage - was performed by Simone but written by her husband Stroud. In it, a women's work is to cook, sew, and love unconditionally. A man's? Simply to resist the temptation to cheat. As she later exposes on 'Ain't No Use' - and was well documented in the press - Stroud profusely abused Simone, both mentally and physically, giving his laissez faire rules for husbandry in 'Be My Husband' grim connotations.

What makes Simone's subordinative enslavement more heartbreaking is the genius that pours from 'Strange Fruit' and 'Sinnerman.' For clarity, she didn't write either, but that's of little relevance when each effort is easily the song's most recognizable cover. While 'Strange Fruit's' empty prose acts as Pastel Blues' unforeseen passage of cheerless enlightenment, it's actually 'Sinnerman,' in its rousing culmination of all that came before, that catapults the album to another level. Pastel Blues is filled with sin, especially in the conservative, bible-thumping 1960's sense. Abuse and violence undercut 'Strange Fruit' and 'Ain't No Use,' greed and selfishness dominate 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down & Out,' adultery takes hold of 'Be My Husband,' and suicide marks the end on 'Trouble In Mind' and 'Chilly Winds Don't Blow.' That is to say, 'Sinnerman's' epic, 10-minute Gospel nirvana visualizes all the sins in the form of a man who regrets his life's motives when it's already too late. Seeking out God, being ushered to the Devil, hiding under rocks, running to the bleeding and boiling river. The power, purpose, and desperation correlate sublimely in Simone's production, as the frantic Jazz ensemble and background vocals wreak havoc across the lands. The intensity of 'Sinnerman' a complete 180 to the purity and modesty that came before and a perfect representation of the demons badgering Simone; both inside and out.

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