"Pour une Ame Souveraine"
By Jess Righthand
Friday, October 12, 2012
As the first guitar lick beckons on Meshell Ndegeocello’s Nina Simone tribute album, “Pour une Ame Souveraine” (“For a Sovereign Soul”), it’s clear that some strange and beautiful alchemy is at work.
In some ways, the D.C. go-go alumna and the storied jazz chanteuse are kindred spirits. Both women have a history of social activism. Both have defied genres, industry expectations and the musical status quo.
But those parallels are not by themselves enough to spawn an inspired recording, and Ndegeocello finds herself in a heightened state of awareness to that fact.
The bassist, vocalist, rapper, composer and producer utilizes each of her talents to send a reinvigorating jolt down the spine of Simone’s songs. Her penchant for percussive, syncopated grooves sends “Suzanne” and “House of the Rising Sun” into an uncharted stratosphere. Her vocals are often cool where Simone’s were hot, a contrast that oozes postmodern verve.
Ndegeocello also gets some valuable help from friends, with standout guest performances by Sinead O’Connor, Lizz Wright and Toshi Reagon, among others.
The album exhausts most of the up-tempo material toward the beginning, leaving listeners a bit antsy as the record comes to a close. But that’s a small quibble with this multilayered portrait of the ineffable singer by an equally sovereign soul.