Incomparable and unfathomable, Nina Simone is in her finest form when tearing into the guts and pathos of unlikely songs — by the likes of Bob Dylan, Kurt Weill and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins — songs that no other singer who has brushed up against the genre called soul would touch. Hoping to make her into the pop star that various tiny labels and a bizarre stretch on RCA could not, Elektra debuts Simone in a harmless cabaret mood. With his flair for the obvious, producer Andre Fischer (the craftsman of Natalie Cole’s yuppie classic, Unforgettable) keeps the arrangements muted and swingy against the simplistic tunes (no fewer than three Rod McKuen compositions pack this record). Simone’s grainy, dark and highly self-conscious voice has absolutely nowhere to go.
Not for lack of trying, of course. The range of Simone’s vocal expression always outreaches the material’s intention; that’s her scary charm. But Fischer’s work implies that he didn’t get out of his armchair once. He’s damagingly respectful, denying the possibilities of danger, misery or, God forbid, humor in this menu of jazz-soul nightclub moments. The strings swell to bloating, the piano tinkles distractedly, horns snooze in the background. Interesting choices, such as “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and Streisand’s silly, soaring “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” edge nearest to fulfilling their promise. But overall, A Single Woman aims to do nothing more than entertain pleasantly, and that’s the one thing Nina Simone, effortless when provoking, grousing or despairing, just can’t do.