Nona Hendryx has been stirring shit up for half a century. Her girl group beginnings may have been humble and demure, but she quickly morphed into a space-rock queen as 1/3 of LaBelle before spinning off into a solo career that encompassed funk, rock, pop and new age. She’s worked with everyone from Prince to Tina Weymouth without blinking an eye. Although she’s been largely absent from the recording scene for two decades, she still performs live, produces and even acts. She’s also served as an activist for numerous causes.
Mutatis Mutandis finds the 68 year old performer still stirring shit up. I’ve often bemoaned the lack of protest songs on the pop music scene of today, and Nona puts contemporary artists to shame with this album-a fiercely political melange of rock and soul with meaningful lyrics and impassioned singing.
The album title means “changing those things which need to be changed,” and Nona does her part to educate with this song cycle. Beginning with the funky opener “Tea Party” (which interpolates a snatch of Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove,”) she pulls no punches, bemoaning “the castration of our nation” and representing for the 99%. This song and album closer “Mad As Hell Pt. 1” are the perfect bookends to this powerful set.
Artists tend to lose their edge a little as they age-lyrically and musically, but if anything, time has made Nona’s voice more resonant and it certainly hasn’t dimmed her lyrical acuity. A striking cover of “Strange Fruit” (a song most strongly identified with Billie Holiday) is almost uncomfortable to listen to: not only because Nona’s reading of the 73 year-old song proves that the more things change, the more things stay the same, but also because Nona’s unvarnished reading gives the song an extra gravitas. It’s a spellbinding listen.
Other highlights of Mutatis Mutandis include “Oil On The Water,” in which she suggests that karmic retribution for our mistreatment of nature is coming, “Black Boys,” a track that discusses America’s view of us brothers with laser-sharp insight, and the gospel-esque “Let’s Give Love A Try.” The latter song, in lesser hands, could have ended up being a trite “We Are The World”-esque singalong, but the rootsy production and Nona’s voice pushes it way past the level of “up with people” and turns it into a testimonial with lyrics that blur the lines between love song for a partner and love song for the world.
Everyone knows it’s an election year in the U.S.A. Even if that wasn’t the case, Mutatis Mutandis would serve as a sorely needed reminder that all is not well in the world we live in. It seems as though the popular music community is more concerned with hits and money than sending a message (and I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for that.) It’s a sad state of affairs when the best today’s stars can do as far as protest songs is John Mayer’s “Waiting On The World To Change” (and I say that as someone who loves the song.) Thank you, Nona, for making this album and reminding us all what righteous piss ‘n vinegar is. Kudos to you.
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