Unheard Of

New releases from Nina Simone, Nellie McKay, Damien Rice, Richard X, and Candi Staton

If you hunger for great music beyond the obvious choices such as OutKast, Melissa Etheridge, JC Chasez and Loretta Lynn, how do you choose among the dozens of albums released each week by artists you’ve never heard of? Now that the season has come for living easy, allow us to point you to five artists we’ve been enjoying for several months now.

Nina Simone

If you have yet to fully investigate the phenomenon of Nina Simone, the phenomenal two-disc compilation Anthology is the perfect place to begin. Simone died last year at the age of 70, after having made her indelible mark on jazz, R&B and folk. Issued just months after her death, this compilation is the most representative sampler available of the artist’s range, from pop covers to original blues to iconoclastic live performances. Simone was a Julliard-trained pianist who grew so fed up with American racism that she lived out her last decades in France. She increasingly sang of her frustration in self-penned protest songs, such as the classic “Mississippi Goddam, ” which in its way is echoed in today’s gay rights battles: America, she sings, “I don’t trust you anymore, [you] keep on saying, ‘go slow.’ ”

Nellie McKay

Nellie McKay has been curiously touted as a sort-of feminist Eminem. She does seem to plant a few light jabs in Eminem’s direction on those songs in which she raps on her two-disc debut, Get Away from Me. The title is a jab at Norah Jones, whose debut was titled Come Away with Me. The British-born but Harlem bred McKay creates engaging pop based on jazz and showtunes. And she’s one for current events, chiding President Bush at several turns and singing a wry ode to human cloning. Her eclectic mix is an acquired taste to be sure, but even in those moments when the veritable prodigy is not in top form, McKay shows herself to be a true entertainer, a singing satirist with charm and wordplay derring-do to spare.

Damien Rice

A new Irish troubadour with confidence and musicianship well beyond his years Damien Rice‘s O positively aches with searing melodies, confessionally laconic lyrics, and beautifully Spartan song constructions laced with acoustic accompaniment. The weepy-voiced Rice reportedly has an album’s worth of happier, rockier material on the way, which just might be his ticket to wider recognition. It might also strengthen comparison to David Gray, though so far Rice seems more like a successor to the late Jeff Buckley.

Richard X

If Thomas Dolby were recording today, Richard X is how he might sound. The British Richard X was one of the first to pioneer the now-over mash-up madness craze of the last couple years, and that influence is reflected here: for Richard X Presents His X-Factor, Vol. 1, he’s created new songs that sound old, and remade old songs that sound new. And he features ’80s-esque electro-pop singers you’ve heard before, from Tiga to Soul II Soul’s Caroyn Wheeler to Liberty X. Kelis also contributes a song, “Finest Dream, ” that should be a follow-up hit to her frothy, overplayed “Milkshake. ”

Candi Stanton

Remember the late disco hit “Young Hearts Run Free “? It may have been her biggest hit, but it’s nothing like anything else bluesy singer Candi Staton ever recorded. And you won’t find it on Candi Staton, a collection of 30-year-old old-southern-soul recordings long overdue for wider recognition and never before available on CD. As is borne out here, Staton is better suited to R&B than disco. Her slightly gritty but sweet as honey, power-piped voice oozes over these intricately, precisely scored, mostly bitter songs in a fashion as satisfying as her more popular contemporary Aretha Franklin. The genuineness of her feeling is superb. Just listen to her Grammy-nominated R&B take on Tammy Wynette’s country classic, “Stand By Your Man, ” sung with a knowing wink (Staton left her abusive first husband) and a spunky attitude that matches the dressed-up melancholic funk added to the familiar melody.

Doug Rule is a theater critic and contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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