In a recent e-mail interview I read, Kay of the Czech Republic trio Sunshine wrote, "Damn ... I am sick of '80s!" Listening to the band's Velvet Suicide, though, I wonder if the lead singer misunderstood the reporter's "influences" question. Drenched in the urgent desperation of the teenage years, with echoey, doleful vocals and gloomy guitar distortion, Sunshine bears all the hallmarks of a band that grew up listening to early Cure, P.I.L., and a smidge of Birthday Party. Certainly, Kay admits as much. Perhaps it is the question that makes him sick; the influence of overcast styles in '80s music should be self-apparent. And it is. Not to say that Sunshine is entirely derivative. In millennial fashion, the band melds genres, dripping new wave keyboard samples into art rock with danceable beats and melancholic lyrics. But certainly the most singular component of Sunshine's compositions is its nation of origin, which affords unusual phrasing and a natural kinetic energy usually missing from such inconsolable young men. Let's hope an American tour does not influence the band overly much. Sunshine supports the Vue on Monday, Nov. 13, at the 40th Street Warehouse (379 40th St. in Oakland) with the Shivers (or Chandeliers) opening at 8 p.m. Tickets are $4; call (510) 428-2354.
It seemed improbable to me when, earlier this year, I heard Nina Simone had launched her first U.S. tour in decades. Since the year of my birth, "The High Priestess of Soul" has been living in her adopted homeland of France, releasing only a small handful of albums, playing only occasionally for more appreciative European audiences. It seemed fitting that I would never see Simone perform in person; from the moment I first heard her aching rendition of Gershwin's "My Man's Gone Now," Simone had become a figure of untouchable legend in my mind. Born Eunice Waymon in 1933, the child's natural-born gift as a pianist was quickly made evident as she learned to play by ear for her mother's church services in their small hometown of Tryon, N.C. After catching the eye of a local music teacher, the prodigy was encouraged to study classical music, eventually taking instruction at the Juilliard School of Music and moving to Philadelphia in hopes of studying at the Curtis Institute of Music. The latter school rejected her -- a point that still rankles the Queen if her comments in Philly earlier this year are any indication -- but the contention served as a blessing for us all. While working as a pianist in a small club to make ends meet, Waymon was instructed to sing. Afraid to besmirch her God-fearing family name while singing the devil's music, she took a nom de guerre (Nina being Spanish for "little girl," a nickname given to her by a Latin boyfriend, and Simone culled from the French actress Simone Signoret). Simone soon proved herself one of the most emotive and supple female singers of all time, interpreting artists such as Jacques Brel, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Bessie Smith, and Screamin' Jay Hawkins to overwhelming effect. Despite only moderate success in America, she was highly praised in Europe. In the early 1960s, disgusted with the bigotry and violence erupting in the face of the civil rights movement, she recorded "Mississippi Goddam," a song which was banned throughout the South but became a standard of dissension for African-Americans. "Ain't Got No/I Got Life," from the popular musical Hair, was released in the U.K. as a single in the autumn of 1968, and -- astoundingly -- reached No. 2 on the charts. Building around the single, Simone recorded a trio of Bob Dylan songs, Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," Pete Seeger's "Turn! Turn! Turn!," her own "Revolution," and the now-classic anthem "To Be Young, Gifted & Black," which was further popularized by Aretha Franklin. But Simone's socio-political stoicism is still outweighed by her unadulterated talent. On a new RCA compilation, Bittersweet, we are treated to the breadth of Simone's moods and ability. From the eerie strains of "I Put a Spell on You" to the raw sexuality of "I Want Some Sugar in My Bowl" to the wistful plaint of "Don't Smoke in Bed" to the rage of "Mississippi Goddam" to the jazzy trump of "I Loves You Porgy" to the tenderness of "Ne Me Quitte Pas" to the blistering ache of "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," Bittersweet is the 16-song testament of a long-missing Queen. Perhaps this time around she will be given the tribute that is her due. Nina Simone performs on Monday, Nov. 13, at Davies Symphony Hall (201 Van Ness) at 8 p.m. Tickets are $45-75; call 478-2277.