Nina Simone High Priestess of... Love? 

Legacy’s new Nina Simone compilation Love Songs is savvy enough to impress longtime fans as well as anyone to whom La Simone is little more than a reverent name-check on a Fugees single. These 14 tracks (many of which she arranged and/or produced herself), are plucked from albums made between 1967 thru 1971 — a period of political assassination, anti-war activism, global student uprisings, and the pivotal reformulation of the Stateside Civil Rights movement into the Black Power movement.

Straddling then-extant definitions of jazz, pop, and soul, this androgynous contralto was already without category. Today, those familiar with Simone’s recordings — from Brecht and Weill’s ‘Pirate Jenny’, Randy Newman’s ‘Baltimore’, to her own ‘Mississippi Goddam’ — wouldn’t consider her a torch singer, no matter how many lilting romantic ballads she waxed. But Love Songs allows us to hear the torchy side of Simone unmediated by darker meditations on the human condition. Beginning with Gershwin’s ‘I Loves You Porgy’ she immediately eschews pathos for heroic faith and yearning. She genderbends the lyrics of ‘Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair’ to incant a range of possibilities from heterosexual fusion, to a transcendent, autoerotic narcissism. For the High Priestess of Soul, love was complex, but always triumphant, which is why her cover of ‘Just Like a Woman’ blows the sexist doors off Dylan’s original.

Carol Cooper

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