The few albums that Simone recorded after her contract with RCA ended in 1974 are wildly contrasting in style and quality. Baltimore (1978) is undoubtedly the best, a wonderful album that is alternately moving and joyful and, ultimately, one of the artist’s most accessible albums. Fourteen years later, in 1992, she released A Single Woman, another wonderful album that would prove to be her swansong when it came to official releases. Here, Nina managed to produce some wonderful ballad performances, elevated by the lush orchestrations and betraying no sign of her continued ill health. The albums in between are troubled affairs. 1987’s Let It Be Me is a difficult live album, finding Nina in such poor voice that one wonders why she agreed to the release in the first place. She had been videotaped at Ronnie Scott’s in London just three years earlier, and the deterioration since that performance is startling and heartbreaking (she is much better on A Single Woman). 1985’s Nina’s Back is wild mess of an album that sees Simone adopting the use of synthesiser’s, but the whole thing must have sounded dated even when it was released.
Even taking the above into account, Nina Simone’s most obscure studio album, Fodder On My Wings from 1982, remains something of a bizarre entry in her catalogue. As with all the 1980s albums, it is uneven, but doesn’t deserve to be as little known as it is. It is a strange, erratic concoction, though, which includes remakes of two songs that had appeared on Baltimore, and also songs that would later be remade on Nina’s Back.
The album opens with I Sing Just To Know That I’m Alive, an upbeat, rhythmical number that ultimately doesn’t quite take off in the confines of the recording studio. A much better live version was captured a couple of years later and released as part of the Empress Live release, and a live version can also be found on the video recording of the Ronnie Scott’s performance from 1984. That recording, like the whole Ronnie Scott concert, is rather subdued, but Simone is in much better voice and her sense of timing is much better, too. On the studio recording, she tends to anticipate the beat and the whole thing sounds rather scrappy.
Fodder On Her Wings is another song which would fare better at Ronnie Scott’s, with the longer running time giving a chance for the song to really capture the listener’s attention fully. While the introduction on the studio album is impressive, the vocal section seems cut short and it all ends just as it’s about to get going. This is a fine song, though, supposedly about reincarnation, and one of Simone’s greatest efforts of the period.
Vous Etes Seuls, Mais Je Desire Etre Avec Vous comes next, and is one of the highlights of the album, despite the lyrics consisting solely of the title sung over and over. But this is captivating stuff, starting with Nina singing alone, with the sound building up, layer over layer, with the effect being almost hypnotic. One could certainly imagine this being given a new lease of life one day with an imaginative DJ taking Simone’s vocals and adding a dance track – I’m not sure I would approve, but it would work.
Il Y A Un Baume A Gilhead is a re-recording of Balm In Gilhead from Baltimore, but this is a more subdued affair, and it’s difficult to see what Simone was trying to achieve. Liberian Calypso is a joyous romp telling of the singer’s time in Liberia. But once again, this seems to work better in a live setting, with the videotaped performance from 1990 in Montreux eclipsing the one here, despite the fact that this one is solid enough.
Alone Again Naturally is a rather strange choice of material, with Simone writing new lyrics. She obviously wanted to get the story of her father’s passing out of her system, but it makes for depressing listening, despite the fine vocal. I Was Just A Stupid Dog To Them changes the mood rather effectively, and this rhythm number is memorable for the intense, yet light, vocals and the rather infectious arrangement. Color Is A Beautiful Thing is another rather odd addition to the album, also known as The Ding Dang Song, and running for less than a minute.
Le Peuple en Suisse is the best ballad performance on the album, although sadly the song lacks the hook required to make it as memorable as some of the other titles here. Heaven Belongs to You is another Baltimore re-recording, and sounds more like a live performance as Nina addresses the listener before singing. It’s fun, lively and infectious, but still isn’t an improvement over the original attempt. Thandewye is a fine recording, drawing on Nina’s live repertoire. In recent years, however, we have been treated to a previously unreleased live recording from nearly a decade earlier as a bonus on the CD reissue of It Is Finished, which features a stronger, more captivating vocal. The erratic nature of the album continues with Stop, a song about the singer’s hatred of Send in the Clowns(!), before it reaches a bizarre conclusion with the thirty second snatch of They Took My Hand (aka They Took My Teeth).
Reading back over my comments, the feeling that comes through most of all is that the album is a bit of a mess. This is true, I think. But it doesn’t mean that it is not enjoyable, in fact compared to records such as Emergency Ward and It Is Finished, it is remarkably accessible. Most of all, despite all its flaws, it sounds like a Nina Simone record, which cannot be said for Nina’s Back. No, Nina isn’t on her best form, and no, the song choice isn’t always the best, but somehow it works. Despite the strange mix of styles, moods and languages, it somehow holds together as a cohesive whole. It is something of an oddity in the Simone canon, but it surely doesn’t deserve to be as unknown as it is.