One of the reasons tribute albums can be such eye-opening experiences is their ability to shed new light on their source’s songcraft and, more specifically, their lyrics. Herbie Hancock & Co. managed to underscore the brilliance of Joni Mitchell’s unorthodox tunings and richly metaphorical writing in “River: The Joni Letters” a few years back, while The Somebodys’ unjustly overlooked paean to the Bee Gees, “50 Trib to the Brothers Gibb” (2009, Palawan), brilliantly rehabilitated a group kicked to the curb by the disco backlash.
For whatever reason, Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast makes plain on “Rhiannon” in the recently released Fleetwood Mac tribute LP, “Just Tell Me That You Want Me” (Hear Music) what Stevie Nicks and company artfully veiled with their pristine production on the group’s blockbuster eponymous 1975 album.
“She is like a cat in the dark/And then she is the darkness.” Never has Nicks’ elusive heroine been placed in such focused relief: part enigma, part femme fatale. It helps that Best Coast’s arrangements are of the utmost low-tech simplicity — not much more than three notes struck on the piano augmented by the rat-tat-tat of a snare drum. It’s a far cry from Best Coast’s usual Phil Specter-influenced wall of sound. In fact, if one took a blindfold test, Lykki Li’s atmosphere-drenched version of Nicks’ “Silver Springs” could be mistaken for Best Coast, while Karen Elson’s “Gold Dust Woman” (also written by Nicks) channels Nicks’ unique, whispy vocals in one the album’s more direct approximations of the Fleetwood Mac sound.
The Nicks covers are truly the standouts in this collection, and point to how much the ethereal singer-songwriter — mostly remembered for her New Age, leather-and-lace pirouettes — brought to the table when she and Lindsey Buckingham joined Fleetwood Mac at the end of 1974.
I won’t pretend to be familiar with all the previous incarnations of the Mac, when they were known primarily as a blues-rock band, but the gems on this collection are numerous: Marianne Faithfull’s characteristically world-weary take on “Angel” (again Nicks), accompanied by the inimitable Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell on guitars; Billy Gibbons & Co.’s grizzled, swampy interpretation of Peter Green’s “Oh Well”; The New Pornographers doing their best imitation of the Steve Miller Band on Christine McVie’s “Think About Me”; and Tame Impala’s dreamy “That’s All for Everyone” (Buckingham).
The connective tissue here is Randall Poster, one of the more sought-after music supervisors in Hollywood, who produced with Gelya Robb.
Equally, if not more compelling, is Meshell Ndegeocello’s masterful dedication to Nina Simone, “Pour Une Ame Souveraine,” which will be released October 9 on Naive Records. Ndegeocello clearly views Simone, who died in 2003, as a long-lost spiritual sister, and the two artists do share a predilection for tackling sticky sociological themes such as race and gender politics in their music, and an ability to effortlessly straddle genres from jazz to blues to R&B to folk.
“Pour Une Ame Souveraine” is filled with songs either associated with or conceived by Simon, from the opening “Please Don’t let Me Be Misunderstood,” originally released on Simone’s 1964 album “Broadway-Blues-Ballads” and here slowed down to a mournful crawl, to “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” from Simone’s 1970 “Black Gold” album, and here given a high gospel treatment by guest vocalist Cody ChestnuTT.
This rich assemblage manages to be both highly eclectic and of a piece, held together by producers Ndegeocello’s and Chris Bruce's collective vision, bassist Ndegeocello’s impeccable musicianship and a cohesive backing band consisting of Chris Bruce on guitar, Jebin Bruni on keyboards and the phenomenal Deontoni Parks on drums.
Ndegeocello — whose cool, retrained vocals (think Sade with a great band) have always seemed at odds with the muscularity of her arrangements — carries about half the singer duties here, with inspired contributions from Toshi Reagon (a rollicking “House of the Rising Sun”) and Valerie June (a kind of field-hollar take on “Be My Husband” replete with stomps, claps and chants).
Perhaps the one singer who feels out of place here is Sinead O’Connor, who manages to reduce “Don’t Take All Night” to a soggy drone. But this the lone exception to an otherwise masterful collection — certainly one that makes me want to scramble to Amoeba to scour the racks for an artist, Simone, that is, whose activist artistry has somehow escaped my grasp over all these years.