i think its going to rain today

I’ve been listening obsessively for the last 24 hours to Nina Simone & Piano! prompting some scattered thoughts:
Nina Simone is my kind of diva. It’s obligatory for gays to pick one, and I think it becomes a kind of generational identifier: the generation of Judy Garland, the generation of Madonna, the new generation of Gaga. There’s another kind of diva too, your Arethas, your Whitneys. Nina Simone doesn’t fit comfortably in either box. She was genderqueer before that was a thing, and certainly had a voice as strong as anyone, but Nina Simone was first, always, about the music*.
*Yeah, I said it. She’s all about the music, man. I’m starting off 2012 post-irony. Which may or may not be sincerity.
Generations of listeners have connected with her because of the uniqueness and strength of her voice, but I think one of the most essential components of Nina’s sound is that I never get the sense that she is particularly concerned with sounding pretty. Nina’s one of those amazing singers with a singing voice that sounds effortless, like an extension of her speaking voice. It means that you never have a hard time understanding the words of the song, and allows her to become a character, or a narrator. The speechlike quality of her voice also gives her songs an incredible emotional charge. In sad songs, it becomes blunt, almost detached, the directness cutting way deeper than any affectation. In happy songs, or love songs, it’s so plan and declamatory that it transcends emotion and becomes truth.
I think the reason that Nina goes straight to my heart, though, is because as wonderful as her singing is, her piano chops may even be better. A lot of the original soul sistuhs don’t get the credit they deserve for their instrumental chops. For example, check out Aretha shredding “Bridge Over Troubled Water” here:
But in Nina, a confidence born from prodigious talent and an instinctual comfort at the piano created a radical, and radically beautiful, mixture of classical technique and improvisation, gospel flourishes, and jazz chord voicing. Just check out her rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s “Who Am I?:”
The first 20 seconds of that song would be at home in any Russian 20th century piano piece. And her deconstruction of the song elevates it from show tune to high art.
The song that slays me on the album, however, is her incredible version of one of my favorite songs, period: Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.”
“I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” presents a few interpretive challenges for a singer. The most difficult is getting the emotional tone of the song right. It’s a song about isolation, and it’s a deeply ironic song. Social isolation is usually sad (Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles/Their frozen smiles to chase love away) and irony about being sad usually becomes triple or quadruple sad. And yet the song is actually pretty ambiguous about how sad it wants to be; I believe the line “Human kindness is overflowing, and I think it’s going to rain today.” The song walks the line between touchy-feely connotations of rain and water as healing and nurturing and, uh… you know, Eeyore. The most ambiguous lines of the song are the middle bridge, “Tin can at my feet/I guess I’ll kick it down the street/That’s no way to treat a friend.” In the original Newman version of the song, the music kind of breaks down; the words come out like Newman is making it up on the spot and the tight connection between the piano chords and the melody is broken. It’s actually pretty hilarious to hear the butchers who belt out the song like a showtune ballad (dealing with the irony by ignoring it completely) completely flail around in this section, searching for a chord progression to latch onto like a safety blanket.
Nina’s version isn’t simply amazing because of the incredible power of that first verse in her direct and seemingly plain style. It’s amazing because she took a song by a piano master and improved it, making it a duet between her voice and her fingers, turning it into an incredibly cinematic piece of music. It opens in her signature improvised, quasi-Classical style. Then the piano retreats a little bit, leaving room for the words and not encroaching on the emotional space. There’s a little hollow, fake cheery noodle to introduce the bridge, and then retreats completely, leaving Nina to deliver the saddest lines alone…
…until the piano comes back in, catching her at the loneliest movement, breaking into cathartic arpeggios of raindrops and rainbows and pots of gold and dancing in the streets and singing in the rain forever and ever amen.
What I love so much about her take on the song is that she plays the line “I think it’s going to rain today” perfectly both ways. In the first verse, it’s delivered with foreboding, just another fucking thing on another fucking day, the shitty Maraschino cherry on a gloomy sundae. That same line, the second time around, is a line of catharsis (she even breaks out into a joyous, “Yeah”), the rain promising to wash away all of that awfulness, the sky, just like human kindness, overflowing.

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