Choice gifts

by Toni Morrison
$23.95, 167 pp.
Toni Morrison, the last American author to have won the Nobel Prize in literature, has once again spun a tale of profound insight into the human psyche. In her latest historical narrative A Mercy, Morrison explores the fine line between compassion and cruelty, freedom and entrapment, as seen through the eyes of the repressed.

In her patented refined style, Morrison tells a history of slavery, one with no bounds: Men and women, black, white and mulatto all are subject to oppression, whether a slave, indentured servant, freedman or wife.

The novel takes readers on a journey through 17th century pre-America, a land of vast abundance and beauty contradicted by deprivation and brutality, a world in which fulfilling the basest of human desires — thirst, hunger, sex, warmth and rest — reigns supreme. It's where atrocities are committed out of fear, need and lack of freedom.

A Mercy slowly unravels like a mystery, beckoning the reader to look beyond the words and actions of its players. Much like the central character, Florens, a "lettered" African slave girl who reads both words and "signs" — "If a pea hen refuses to brood, I read it quickly" — the reader must go deeper than the preconceived notions of morality to the reason behind cruelties inflicted upon the innocent.

Florens is tormented by her mother's decision to "give" her to landowner Jacob Vaark to settle her master's debt. She joins a motley crew of women in servitude to the kind-hearted Vaark: "Flesh was not his commodity."

In all respects, Vaark is the patriarch and savior of his foundling family: Florens, English wife Rebekka, native servant Lina, wild Sorrow and her imaginary "Twin."

A Mercy may seem slight — at a mere 167 pages — but the complex narrative discourse weaves back and forth between both time and each character's viewpoint, with each story building upon the next. In all their simplicity, each character's perceptions are intense in purity and insight, giving the reader a powerful understanding of how humanity can be lost, found and reclaimed as long as you're not "a slave by choice." —Christa Buchanan

Tea for the Tillerman Deluxe Edition
Teaser and the Firecat Deluxe Edition
$29.98 each
His voice could suspend midair like light and his guitar ostinatos were so melodically precise they could tickle vertebrae. Cat Stevens (aka Yusuf Islam) traveled the female side of the universe, perhaps, and listening to the guy now it's difficult to believe such unironic sentiment even existed in pop music, much less in songs that justifiably sold into the millions of copies.

These early-'70s albums saw the pre-Muslim Stevens scaling his creative (and commercial) heights. And what renders these two-disc Deluxe Editions purchase-worthy isn't just Ted Jensen's lovely and warm remastering (which, gratefully, does not interfere with the integrity of the master tapes) but the bonus discs of demos and live performances.

Released in 1970, Tea for the Tillerman was Stevens' second for A&M, a record that launched him stateside after four years of U.K. successes. It's true, too-precious rhetoric dates some lyrics ("Taking a ride/On a cosmic train") but beauty trumps all, particularly on "Where Do the Children Play," "Wild World" and "Father and Son." The second disc features a few songs heard elsewhere (hear Stevens' live Majicat CD) but so what? The other bonuses are this side of astonishing — dig his vocal delivery on the "Wild World" demo and how it completely alters the song's meaning.

From 1971, Teaser and the Firecat, certainly his best, lifts on lovely lullaby "If I Laugh" and hits dynamic peaks on the (at times) raging "Bitterblue," which ably shows Stevens capable of rock 'n' roll smack with little more than bass, drums and acoustic guitar; its dynamics alone tell what a gifted writer the cat really was. This 10-song stunner closes fittingly on ever-timely "Peace Train" whose couplets (one: "Now I've been crying lately/Thinking about the world as it is") are as relevant as they ever could be.

Teaser's second disc gives up many magic moments including a haunting "Moonshadow" performed live at West Hollywood's Troubadour (with what sounds like a dozen or so people in attendance).

Each edition features the complete lyrics, pictures, newly penned reminiscences by Stevens (well, Yusuf Islam) himself, song-by-song notes by the singer's guitarist Alun Davies and producer Paul Samwell-Smith. Essential for even the casual fan. —Brian Smith


For the literati on your list, Hasbro's jet-setting 60th anniversary Diamond Edition of Scrabble is a no-brainer. The new design has a sleek rotating rectangular board — as opposed to the square Deluxe Editions in play for decades — and two hidden drawers house the tiles and truncated new racks. This gives the Diamond Edition the portability of a travel set with the size and comfort of a living-room version. The club and tournament community of purists are a bit divided over Hasbro's puzzling decision to change the color of the bonus squares, however. For instance, double-word squares are now the color of triple-word red, and triple-words have paled into a meek orange. It's the equivalent of suddenly changing traffic light rules — you'll get used to it eventually, but not without a few crashes. Double-check your opponent's math the first few games to avoid possible recounts. —John Thomason

The Sound of The Smiths

The Smiths are one of those rare creatures — a band that sounds even better and more modern with each passing year. It's amazing to contemplate the number of bands the Smiths influenced that went on to current superstardom. This two-CD set is the first compilation that Morrissey himself helped put together, so that may make all the other previous collections obsolete in the eyes of his most ardent fans, who, of course, are legion. Don't know I'd call it definitive; Personally, I miss "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others" from The Queen is Dead album. But as that song, much like "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" (included here), demonstrates, Moz could be hysterically funny and profound while expressing depression and despair better than most poets of his time. Pop songs don't come any better than "Panic." A few live tapes and alternate mixes add to the appeal. And Johnny Marr's space-age guitar playing remains sublime in any era. One can only hope that if Morrissey decided to spend time on a Smiths compilation, perhaps he'll entertain the idea of a band reunion in the future. Coachella has already offered them millions for one date — and I, for one, would certainly prefer that to another round of Led Zeppelin. At any rate, this is a perfect gift for aspiring rock historians who want to know where a lot of today's most popular rock sounds originated. —Bill Holdship


The perfect gift for the punk rock girlfriend who'd make you stay up all night trying to catch this 1981 cult classic on some godforsaken cable station. OK, maybe you should just get her TIVO. No, fuck it, go with the original thought, since this DVD release has no commercials every two minutes, improved picture and sound, and commentaries that'll make you want to slash your wrists, especially because of star Diane Lane, whose somewhat haughty observations on her performance — as 14-year-old punk rocker Corrine "Three Degree" Burns — seem informed with the idea that she moved way beyond this lowbrow entertainment to such high-art as Under the Tuscan Sun and Must Love Dogs. Ditto for that of director (and legendary record producer) Lou Adler, whose world-weary premise that everything cool in pop culture gets uncool the minute everybody emulates it, kind of like how Cisco Adler wears the same doggoned hat as his dad.

What's cool about this admittedly stoopid guilty pleasure is that the Fabulous Stains, which also features a jailbait Laura Dern on bass, could be credited as either a forerunner for riot grrl bands of the '80s and '90s or a punk rock embodiment of the Shaggs' inability to play a lick.

The Stains' real gimmick? Lecturing audiences, apparently. On her debut gig, supporting Metal Corpse (fronted by a superbly spaced-out Fee Waybill), Corrine lams into the audience for being sheep, flashes her bra and panties and says, "I'm perfect! But nobody in this shithole gets me, because I don't put out!"

Granted, every Jewish American Princess has pulled the same stunt for centuries, but not in a rock club where the "surprise" meter jumps into the red. It makes it easy for Ray Winstone, whose rival band the Looters gets demoted from headliner to bottom of the bill, to lecture the audience that they have in fact become the very sheeple they were warned not to be. Heavy.

Anyone who didn't feel adequately cheated by The Great Rock and Roll Swindle will get it in spades watching the Looters, an actual all-star punk band featuring Sex Pistols' Paul Cook and Steve Jones and the Clash's Paul Simenon — who all look and sound great (they cover "Join the Professionals" from Cook and Jones' same-named band) but are rarely given any dialogue that doesn't involve muttering "fookin' hell" or "wanker" under their breath. In the end, that's way more punk rock badness than Times Square but less punk rock goodness than Rude Boy. —Serene Dominic

by Stieg Larsson
$24.95, 480 pp.

In Book One of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy," corporate corruption, greed, blackmail, theft, rape, murder, fascism and misogyny all intertwine in an engrossing twist on the classic crime novel-cum-mystery-cum-thriller-cum-epic saga-cum-love story.

Girl — aptly titled Men who Hate Women in the original Swedish version — is a tale for and of the ages, in which the well-known, now-deceased Swedish writer Stieg Larsson reflects on the great many societal evils that come into play with the abuse of power.

After a slow start, Girl picks up speed, chronicling the "hero," disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkrist, on a journey for justice after he's found guilty of libel for writing an exposé on corporate financial fraud. Along the way he gets a duplicitous offer from the wealthy scion of the powerful Vanger family, for which the true purpose is to solve the "murder" of his beloved niece.

With the titular tattooed girl — the young, socially inept, but brilliant, punk-inspired "heroine" Lisbeth Salander — Blomkrist delves into the mysteries behind the twin plotline, exposing the complex Mafia-esque fraud and the Vangers' sinister secret.

Intelligent and well-plotted, Girl is a stylistic hybrid of journalism and fictional prose that takes getting used to and can be slightly confusing at times; however, in the long run, the "reported" tone of Girl lends an air of authenticity to the story, somehow making the more idiosyncratic plot lines — tiny Salander takes on and beats a psycho serial killer, among other unlikely feats — are more believable.

Although it begins slowly and ends somewhat disappointingly — a blend of Hollywood happy and Euro angst — it's a thought-provoking read of twists, new revelations and insight into the worlds of journalism, business and human nature. —Christa Buchanan

Warner Home Video

Watching the exhaustively researched JFK just a few weeks after Oliver Stone's latest presidential initial-film — the astonishingly shallow W. — it becomes obvious that Stone's more comfortable assessing presidential legacies through the prism of hindsight rather than the prematurity of immediacy. Some audiences and critics weren't ready for JFK at the time, discrediting the picture without even seeing it. But today, Stone's convoluted compendium of conspiracy should be viewed as a prescient cautionary tale of Orwellian slippery slopes, with Jim Garrison's (Kevin Costner) climactic courtroom manifesto about a country secretly sliding into fascism resonating deeply after eight years of President Bush. It contains more vitriolic intimations of the Bushian secrecy we've come to fear than all 129 withering minutes of W.

Warner Home Video's attractive new edition of JFK repackages the two-disc edition already available along with a new two-hour documentary, The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings. The gift set also includes cool detritus from the Kennedy Presidential Library and the Kennedy Foundation, including reprinted Polaroids, speeches, correspondence and a campaign button. Finally, a disappointing 42-page book is filled mostly with pictures, scant biographical data on the cast and crew, and sycophantic proclamations of Stone's genius ("one of the finest American directors working today," etc.).

What's most interesting about the new supplemental material is how much it delves into Kennedy's life and career — and how little Stone's movie plumbs such depths. JFK is only tangentially related to the eponymous president; it's less about the man than about the idealism he stood for — wacko stuff like the separation of church and state, civil rights, antidiscrimination, diplomacy before war and the upholding of the Constitution — that, in Garrison's and perhaps Stone's eyes, had to lead to his death courtesy the governmental, Mafia and intelligence community status quo. But rather than combining with the investigative flourishes of Stone's examination to paint a complete picture of Kennedy's character and beliefs, The Kennedys is mostly just history-classroom hagiography. It does let key speeches play out without interruption, making it slightly more absorbing and valuable than a filmed Wikipedia timeline, but it nonetheless glosses over the more disreputable areas of Kennedy's life (his philandering, for instance). Moreover, it includes a few shots from Nov. 22, 1963, and the funeral that followed, but it says nothing about the actual assassination, let alone any conspiracies surrounding it, thus providing no documentary balance to Stone's glamorous fact-fiction.

Seventeen years after it was made, JFK remains Stone's best movie, an engrossing compilation of theories both comfortingly loony and frighteningly plausible. It's a film that continues to grow in esteem, especially with a Kennedyesque figure about to ascend to the White House. The supplements leave plenty to be desired, but in 2008, with Bush on his way out and Obama on his way in, JFK is a vital movie to reconnect with. —John Thomason

The Unreleased Recordings
Time Life

There's something wondrous about hearing something new that you never thought you'd hear, especially when it's from someone as important to the history of American music as Hank Williams was ... and is. Following a long legal battle over the tapes, Williams' daughter, Jett, and her lawyer husband won the right to release these 54 tracks (on three CDs), which consist of Williams, already a huge star in 1951, hosting a 15-minute radio show from Nashville for sponsor Alabama Flour Mills and their product, Mother's Best Laying Mash (!). Williams and his Drifting Cowboys band performed songs on the show five days a week, prerecording acetates when they were on the road. The selections are wonderful. The majority of them are songs you've never heard Williams perform before, be it well-known songs like "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "On Top of Old Smoky" (a big hit for the Weavers at the time) and "When the Saints Go Marching In," the latter two which Hank takes back to their more sinister or at least apocalyptic origins; lots of spirituals, and even a previously unrecorded Williams original, "California Zephyr." His own classics — "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Hey, Good Lookin'" and "Cold, Cold Heart" (which had just been a huge mainstream hit as recorded by Tony Bennett) — sound more urgent and fresher here, almost as though they've been taken out of a dusty mausoleum, that's how often the original recordings have been heard by many of us (even if they remain some of the greatest songs in the American canon). The original pop poet of the working class — Dylan has frequently said he wouldn't do what he does without him — Williams is frequently portrayed in music history as a tragic star; he'd be dead in a little over a year after these recordings were made. But it's refreshing to hear him here so of the moment and so alive, just as people heard him then — not a tragic figure at all. Patti Smith once called Hank Williams the first rock star and Patti was probably right. This is a must-hear for any country or rock music history fan. —Bill Holdship

Love Train: The Sounds of Philadelphia

This past summer's Detroit Jazzfest celebrated the similarities between several genres of music from Detroit and the City Of Brotherly Love. The truth is that Philadelphia made records throughout the rock and soul eras that are almost as good (please note, I said "almost") as the ones that came out of the Motor City. This four-CD collection concentrates on the "Philly Sound" as created by legendary producers like Gamble & Huff and Thom Bell — and therefore isn't a definitive representation of the city's stellar music scene (nothing here from Cameo/Parkway, for instance). But these 72 songs do run from the Soul Survivors' blue-eyed soul-garage rock hybrid, "Expressway To Your Heart" to the Three Degrees' luscious "When Will I See You Again" to the Spinners' "Rubberband Man." (Hey, weren't the Spinners from Detroit? Doesn't matter; the collection also features such definite non-Philly names as Wilson Pickett and Dusty Springfield, represented here via a few obscure gems.) In other words, one will find way more hits than misses on this excellent set. —Bill Holdship

Murmur: Deluxe Edition

R.E.M. has inspired much critical love in the 27 years since its first single, "Radio Free Europe," announced the band's arrival. But of all the glowing reviews, none nails the band's mysterious allure so perfectly or succinctly as this: "R.E.M. was a product of the record store, the library and the college classroom." That doesn't come from a music journalist — it was written by Don Dixon and can be found in the liner notes for the 25th-anniversary "deluxe edition" release of Murmur, the band's first proper album, which Dixon co-produced.

Listening to this re-released Murmur, which now includes a second disc containing a Toronto show from a few months after the album's release, the three crucial ingredients that Dixon cites as part of the band's DNA aren't yet fully integrated, but they would come to inform the band's stellar career. Put another way, R.E.M. is the product of a studious determination to be deeper, smarter, and better than the competition, but at the time of Murmur, the band was settling for just being more mysterious. Absorbing Murmur now, you can still tell how good it is, but for a lot of folks, its greatest mystery is how the band we hear in '83 could've possibly evolved into the superstars whose many peaks have launched several generations of worthy indie bands.

In retrospect, Murmur feels like the ultimate "promising debut" record. Ghostly songs that radiate warmth rather than chills, the album embodies one of indie-rock's most important qualities: a sense of a secret world so much cooler and richer than the one that's shoved down our throats every dreary day. R.E.M. reveled in their secrets — Michael Stipe's vocals that enunciated nothing but suggested everything, Peter Buck's jumpy guitar work that transcended stylistic categories, and the understated rhythm section of drummer Bill Berry and Mike Mills that seemed both there and not there at all. Who were these guys? What were they singing about? And can we listen to it again, please?

If college rock of the early '80s simply meant rejecting a bid for mainstream popularity, Murmur exposes the silly narrow-mindedness of such a strategy — the damn thing is insanely catchy. Whether it's "West of the Fields" bouncing off the walls or "Moral Kiosk" trying to cut a rug, Murmur is the work of songwriters who aren't turning their noses at accessibility but instead trying to use new roads to get there. The album reminds hardcore R.E.M. fans that their beloved underground group's eventual "sellout" to a major label was in keeping with their belief from the beginning that good music and popular music weren't mutually exclusive ideas. Murmur was a secret a lot of people wanted to be let in on — a promising debut that blossomed into a career none of us had any right to imagine could remain so satisfying. And in this remastered version, it all sounds even better. —Tim Grierson

Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison

The Folsom Prison concerts finally get the same deluxe treatment that the later San Quentin shows got a few years back. But even though the location also happened to be the title of the country legend's first hit single, and the Folsom shows opened the door for future prison recordings, the San Quentin sets may have been just a tad better, song-wise, even if I do distinctly remember giggling hard as a kid when reading the title "Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart" on the back of the original album cover. Both shows — including Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers and June Carter (all big stars in their own right) — are presented here in their entirety, and an extra DVD features a new documentary about the historic 1968 appearance, as well as Cash's career in general, although — unlike the San Quentin concerts — there was no live footage shot of the Folsom shows. The classic Jim Marshall photos from the show — featured in the documentary as well as in the accompanying book — reveal just how unfortunate that is. By the way, another new documentary, Johnny Cash's America, was also recently released via Sony/Legacy, following a PBS debut, and it's excellent, featuring numerous talking heads — from Bob Dylan to Al Gore to Snoop Dogg (!) — reflecting on the man's importance to this country and its culture. Detroiter Dan Miller, who played original Tennessee Two guitarist Luther Perkins in Taylor Hackford's Walk The Line flick, contributed music to the latter documentary's soundtrack. —Bill Holdship

The Soul of Rock and Roll

In a word, Roy Orbison was otherworldly. All these years later, it may be hard to imagine or even remember how genuinely weird he seemed in his own time. Some people probably thought he was blind back in the day, thanks to those ever-present shades. And then there was the stoic stage persona, which John Belushi brilliantly lampooned during the early days of Saturday Night Live. But what was even weirder — even in rock 'n' roll at the time, which, let's face it, was a safe haven for the genuinely weird and strange — and what really kicked home that otherworldly quality was that voice, which was truly otherworldly in the gorgeous sense of the term. The voice was perfect for the often operatic and epic tales of loneliness, heartbreak and despair Orbison created (although the man could also rock, as the boastful "Mean Woman Blues" or the classic "Oh! Pretty Woman" surely show). No wonder it was Orbison that Elvis most feared, competition-wise, when the King was drafted into the Army. "Hound Dog Man," Orbison's tribute to Presley following his 1977 death, is here, as is probably everything even a major aficionado could desire from this great artist. The four-CD box is the first to encapsulate the Big O's entire career, from his Sun Records beginnings and his Monument Records' super-hits straight through to his final sessions for Virgin ... and everything in between, including the gorgeous Traveling Wilburys track, "You're Not Alone," live stuff, soundtrack recordings and even the gorgeous (sorry for the redundancy but "gorgeous" is the only word that truly captures Orbison's art) song that Danzig — yes, Danzig (!) — wrote and Rick Rubin produced for him in the late '80s, one of the only good things to come out of the film version of Less Than Zero. Highly, highly recommended. —Bill Holdship

No More, No Less
Collector's Choice/Mercury
Four small-town Ohio dudes who sported mod-ready sport coats, flowing locks, sharp elbows and stick-man legs that led to narrow, big-heeled shoes, playing power pop? In the early '70s? That's right. Remember — since many of us weren't born yet — this was a time when shit like Jethro Tull ruled the airwaves and manhandled Midwestern arenas. So you can imagine these guys in some insignificant Ohio town, with obvious factory-rat antecedents, ambling to the corner party store for beer and getting their heads knocked in because their gloriously anomalous, pop-glam appearance didn't sit too well with Ohio hillbillies.

Indeed, Blue Ash was so gloriously '70s — so gloriously ahead of its time so as to appear behind it — it stands to reason that the band got signed to Mercury Records by the too-bright and too-farsighted A&R man Paul Nelson, whose bands either left an indelible (but somewhat invisible) thumbprint on rock 'n' roll (Blue Ash) or downright changed its course forever (New York Dolls). Of course, trailblazers never get their due, and Blue Ash — like the Dolls, until recently ... sort of — vanished into that tragic netherworld of coulda-beens and never-wases. The band was contemporaries to Ohio's other white pop band, the Raspberries, who, you'll note, never had the class to cover a Dylan obscurio such as "Dusty Old Fairgrounds," which Blue Ash does here.

What should you know about Blue Ash? Well, band shouter Jim Kendzor's pop-pitched, shear-cropped vocals sound uncannily similar to Slade's Noddy Holder — yes, that's a good thing — so he could force pretty, sing-along melodies with muscular aplomb. And the delicious major-to-minor chord changes and sweet choruses make the arm hairs rise and fall like bubblegum-snapping soldiers. The band was (arguably) better than the aforementioned Raspberries and is more Who-like, but with wisps of the Searchers ("Plain to See" sounds like that band's version of "Needles and Pins"); hell, the anthem "Abracadabra Have You Seen Her" should've nailed Numero Uno on the American pop singles chart back in the summer of '73. It didn't, of course. Reductive album title aside, No More, No Less is recommended for true fans of Midwestern rock 'n' roll, and those of the much-maligned genre called power pop. —Brian Smith

Pacific Ocean Blue
It's been a satisfying year for Beach Boys fans. Brian Wilson released one of his best solo efforts ever, That Lucky Old Sun, which was only better in a live environment, as he and his band demonstrated with a tremendous show at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater earlier this month. But the really big news to fans of the Wilson brothers' legacy was the release of the long out-of-print and long-awaited Pacific Ocean Blue, Dennis' solo album and the first such to be released by any member of the band. Dennis had already proved that he was the second best songwriter in the group with the one-shot brilliance of the Beach Boys' song, "Forever," which Brian sometimes performs live onstage to this day. But Pacific Ocean Blue is an entirely different beast. It often sounds like the work of a beautiful but now-damaged soul. That doesn't mean it's any less beautiful, but it's definitely not all about "Good Vibrations," either. In fact, this album — as the liner notes point out — really sounds like nothing else out there. There are no comparisons, in other words. Detroiter Ben Edmonds calls it "real soul music" in the notes — and in many ways, it's (again) a beautiful-but-damaged glimpse at the beginnings of the decay of the California dream, a myth the Beach Boys largely helped to frame. This is equally the music of a man who could co-write (uncredited) "You Are So Beautiful" and also, near the end his life as a tormented, often sweet soul, could sometimes literally howl at that same Pacific Ocean from Venice Beach. A second disc includes 17 tracks from the worthy but incomplete and unreleased Bambu followup album. —Bill Holdship

Edited by David Kendall
Running Press
$17.95, 480 pp.

A slack-jawed, glassy-eyed, foul-smelling horde, groaning and staggering around, devouring everything in sight? Sounds like Christmas dinner with my family! (B-dump kshhh!) Thankyouverymuch!

But seriously, folks. Given the undead's penchants for conspicuous consumption and wandering through malls, zombies and Christmas go together like fruitcake and garbage cans. So if the zombiphile who has everything is on your "nice" list, the hefty and fairly inexpensive Mammoth Book of Zombie Comics is sure to satisfy.

Editor Kendall has exhumed an eclectic batch of 18 sequential artworks, and while most of them aren't exactly essential reading, they all have takes on the reanimated corpse genre that are novel (meaning un-Romero-an) enough to keep even die-hard undeadheads morbidly amused. Space zombies, 18th century powdered-wig zombies, resistance fighter zombies, sexy nurse manga zombies, self-aware postmodern zombies, Russian, Celtic and African zombie folk tales, even a zombie Wil Wheaton — they're all here, along with a few of the usual apocalyptic survival stories and EC-style vengeful corpse yarns. Hardcore horror comics fans will be interested to see early work by writer Steve Niles (30 Days of Night) and artist Vince Locke (Batman, A History of Violence and a few Cannibal Corpse album covers). The longest (at 141 pages) and most interesting story in the book, "Dead Eyes Open," is a sometimes funny, sometimes horrifying and sometimes heartbreaking tale that casts the undead as a new class of "other" trying to make a place for themselves in a hostile live-human society. (They end up moving to Alaska. Make of that what you will. You can put lipstick on a zombie, but ...). —Sean Bieri

To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story
If asked to name some powerful women in music today, you might stare blankly before reverting to "Rupaul?" If asked to name some skanky women in music today, the list might exceed in length the Declaration of Independence. It seems that something has happened, or rather has not happened, to strip the scene to a playground for reality megastars — scantily clad, sexed-up, and manufactured.

The Legacy release of a Nina Simone three-disc/DVD ventures backward in time to showcase the controversial figure who drummed up some of the most influential and emotionally charged music of anyone's time. The appropriately named collection, To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story, begs to be read like musical literature, telling the tale of a woman who built a sturdy foundation for strong female artists everywhere and makes the listener ask when the rest of the building is supposed to go up.

Nina Simone was born in 1933 as Eunice Kathleen Waymon in the oppressive Great Depression Era. Despite her impoverished beginnings, she impressed her community with her precocious piano playing, and supporters paid her way through Juilliard, where she trained with some of the most prestigious teachers in the nation. After graduation she began singing at nightclubs and bars and starting going by the stage name Nina Simone. She hit it big with the 1968 release of "I Loves You Porgy," but, unfortunately, like most rookie recording artists, she got hosed by the record industry, which began her adversarial relationship with commercial music.

The DVD features a live performance of "Go to Hell," in which Simone broods heavily through damning lyrics with a wry seriousness that falls like a lead zeppelin over the mixed-race audience. Then, just like that, she hops up from the piano, dancing with levity and igniting the crowd with an undeniable and electric energy that seems to have sprung from nowhere. Likewise, the whole collection is manic in order and nature, frequently ping-ponging between bluesy, bruised ballads such as Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman" followed by rhythmic, light songs like "Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter."

Most critiques of Simone's work applaud this incredible versatility, yet there's always an underlying tone of confusion or justification. They try to marry her different personas, they abridge her experimental drifts into other genres, and they try to reassure you, "She's talented. Really. Don't try to understand her." Like most women with something to say and a wit of intelligence, it seems of utmost importance that you get a handle on her, lest she get too out of control with her words or her music.

The music industry is so aptly keen at streamlining artists, especially women.  

Simone got to the point where things felt a little too streamlined and she needed to cut a new path. The heightened conditions of racism in the late ‘60s, particularly the murder of Medgar Evers, the death of four girls in a church bombing in Alabama, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. left Simone emotionally ravaged and angry. This bitterness was compounded by the record company's poor treatment of her — like many black artists she was systematically taken advantage of financially. She railed against being pigeonholed as a jazz artist or a protest singer and wanted nothing to do with the marketing-driven record industry that seemed to want to make a product out of her. Throw in some nasty tax-evasion problems and a spotty relationship with her husband-manager, and Simone took this as a cue to leave America for good, living in exile in Switzerland, Barbados, and France, for more than a decade before returning to tour the States in the mid-'80s.

Away from America, Simone seems to have shed her ire and replaced it with an inoffensive musical repertoire that lost some of its victory and danger. "I think if I were over there in America, protest music would be more important," she was quoted as saying. "But I'm not going." She retreated not only from the country itself, but from her status as an African-American woman with a platform and a mission. She subtracted most of the statement from her songs and became simply a musician. In that way, they broke her down — and it still happens today.

Within the music industry, it seems, you can either behave yourself and enjoy mainstream success, or take a chance and endure the wrath of God, or at least industry execs. When the Dixie Chicks infamously gaffed "We're embarrassed that the President is from Texas," radio stations retaliated by banning their music while even die-hard fans deserted the Chicks to instead put a boot in Iraq's ass with Toby Keith. Likewise, outspoken musicians such as Lauryn Hill, Ani DiFranco, and Melissa Etheridge are now relegated to the underground after former mainstream popularity.

This doesn't mean that the natural progression of things doesn't work. Every now and again, a Nina Simone will surface, shake things up, and then disappear into relative obscurity, having become dejected and cynical or forced from sold-out arenas to political conventions and alternative festivals. Regardless of the direction of Simone's career, "Mississippi Goddam," "Four Women," and "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black," have been released and are not going anywhere. They've found a place in this new collection, to be enjoyed by new listeners and longtime fans. She influenced a wide array of incredible musicians such as Alicia Keys and Jill Scott, and she gave a voice and a face to intelligent and powerful black women.

Simone inspires not only awe and admiration, but a desire to seek out and advocate musicians of her integrity and strength. 

If, after listening to To Be Free you feel as if you've just been in a bar fight, imagine how Simone must've felt. Few can make this kind of penetrating music, and those who do (think Amy Winehouse) have the battle scars to prove it. The collection's greatest asset is its ability to draw you into the mercurial world of this inspiring woman. If listening on the surface, the songs are technically great and enjoyable in all the ways that music can be. If you dare to delve into the person, into the feelings that grind out the tracks, you might just need some lithium to get you straight again. But every now and again, it's good to get knocked on your ass. —Abbie Kopf

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