Monday, September 5, 2011

A Balm in Baltimore: Nina Simone

Nina Simone

Baltimore is one of those albums about which everyone has emphatic views. Throw-away, say some.  So-so, say others. American uber critic Robert Christgau gives Baltimore a measly B-.

But, the Washerman’s Dog, (and quite a large cohort of others) says, Bloody bewdy. This record is a gem.

I come back to this, one of Nina Simone’s most critically controversial  recordings, very regularly for many of the reasons critics like Christgau, dismiss it. The choice of material is unexpected and wide ranging: white soul (Rich Girl), rock with a reggae tinge (Baltimore), traditional gospel (Balm in Gilead) and folk (My Father). But I like that. On this album you’ll hear Nina stretch and test her voice in ways different from her usual blues.

As unexpected as the material, so too is the tone which is  quite soft and restrained. We all know (and mostly, love) Nina the angry-wrongly-done-black-woman. Mississippi Goddam. Indeed.

But on Baltimore Nina’s mood is reflective, even sad. If there is anger it is about the death of a great American city. In Judy Collin’s My Father the feeling is that of longing and regret, not rage.  All Things Must Change is powerful precisely because it is understated.   The album’s atmosphere of healing culminates a gorgeous rendering of that old ‘Negro’ spiritual, Balm in Gilead.

So if you are in the market for a slice of Nina Simone with a slightly different feel, Baltimore will leave you smiling. Just like that rare view of Nina beaming on the cover.

By the way, Nina Simone herself didn’t like the album, but then she was a bit of a crank!

         Track Listing:
        01 Baltimore
02 Everything Must Change
03 The Family
04 My Father
05 Music for Lovers
06 Rich Girl
07 That's All I Want From You
08 Forget
09 Balm in Gilead
10 If You Pray Right

Listen here.

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