It’s perhaps no accident that Xiu Xiu’s most ambitious album in years is entirely made up of Nina Simone songs. Simone, not unlike Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart, was a restless and daring performer, interrogating the boundaries between jazz, pop, classical, and folk with incredible aplomb. Stewart has similarly excelled at treating genre labels as malleable, constantly positioning his ear for melodic pop against his more avant-garde tendencies, and with Nina, he and his partners have crafted an album in which Simone’s spirit is lovingly refracted through a Xiu Xiu lens.
The album kicks off with its most abstract offering, “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” in which the band dismantles the torch song, trading Simone’s longing piano for the darker, clattering percussion and horn bursts of a New Orleans jazz funeral procession. Stewart’s vocals are barely a whisper, wavering throughout the track, suggesting both vulnerability and menace. Much of Nina is equally ominous, and Stewart’s muted vocal takes give the entire album an eerie, intimate vibe. “Wild As the Wind” is reimagined as a menacing pseudo-waltz, the uplifting, freeform saxophone providing a jarring contrast to Stewart’s demented delivery.
Throughout the album, Stewart’s hushed, syllable-exaggerating tone is often atonal and undisciplined, which fits well with the more tantric arrangements of songs like the standout “See Line Woman” and the dissonant “Pirate Jenny.” It feels out of place, though, on more restrained ballads like “Don’t Explain” and “Just Say I Love Him,” where a more commanding jazz or pop voice might have accentuated the sparse but gorgeous musical accompaniment.
Even if Stewart’s voice is occasionally too much of a disruptive force here, though, the arrangements hold Nina together. Avant-jazz players Tim Berne, Tony Malaby, Mary Halvorson, and Andrea Parkins follow Stewart down every deranged rabbit hole he can find, switching tones and pace in order to keep up. The album’s energy grows out of a band taking chances, and while not every reimagining works, there’s something satisfying about listening to a group of artists crash head-on into an experiment and find clarity among the fragments.