Wow, has it really been eighteen years since Neneh Cherry last put out an album?
Maybe that fact is easy to overlook since she got together with the Scandinavian free jazz trio The Thing just a couple of years ago and made an album that really did merit use of the overworked cliché “a match made in heaven.” But the hybrid of two distinctive and nearly opposite musical personalities made The Cherry Thing something of an anomaly for both acts.
For those wondering just who is Neneh Cherry, she’s the stepdaughter of the late, acclaimed avant-jazz icon Don Cherry and though they shared no blood, the zest for the experimental and the jugular places them in the same musical DNA. No, Cherry isn’t an instrumentalist who typcially delves into the same, crazy crevices of jazz that her famous father had helped to create, but there’s nothing she does that I’d imagine her Dad would disapprove of. In persistently following her own muse, I doubt his approval have ever entered into her calculus in any case.
She fronted the eccentric, avant-jazz-funk combo Rip, Rig and Panic in the 80s, and as a solo artist she got herself a bonafide hit right away with her forward-looking hip-hop track “Buffalo Stance” toward the end of that decade. But raising a family slowed down the pace of her output and she followed up the debut album that “Buffalo” appeared on, Raw Like Sushi, with only two more albums. The latter of these two, Man, came along in 1996 and even then it didn’t make it to America.
After that, almost nothing, until that wonderful thing with the Thing.
Blank Project is just what you’d hope from her at 50 — she reaches the half-century mark in a couple of weeks — for someone whose last led a record when she was 32: gaining a generation full of maturity but losing none of her youthful edge. What she did lose is a big chunk of the instrumental backing: the beats are bare but still big, and electronically conjured waves of sounds appear in the background if at all and maybe some simple bass pulse bleats out. That’s the work of producer Four Tet’s Keiren Hebden, whose very minimal but very modern and emotionless backing puts Cherry’s vocal exposed like never before. Which leaves plenty of room for Cherry’s artistic expression, and this still feels very much her own show. She doesn’t rap so much over Blank Project, but she’s reciting poetry when she’s singing those verses.
That all sets the stage for her middle-aged worldview, one that’s full of hope that’s often overwhelmed by worry. She appeals to God to watch over her recently deceased mother on the barely accompanied “Across the Water,” and concern turns to paranoia on “Spit Three Times.” “Blank Project” binds her menstrual cycle to the complexity of a relationship. A ringing hint of a electronica chord lurks, a parallel to the threat to lash out the slightest provocation. Cherry might be worried and even scared, but you best not mess with her.
Cherry’s new record has only one guest spot in this age of non-stop cameos, as Swedish pop diva Robyn trades couplets with her on “Out of the Black,” the most commercially accessible track with real drums to a conventional beat and the melody up front. That’s not to say this doesn’t fit into the offbeat contour of the rest of the record, however. Her vocals on “Everything” is on the surface bouncy as she tries to shut out the negative vibes (“Got my fingers in my ears I can’t hear you/What I don’t hear, can’t upset me”), but assures herself after evoking Donny Hathaway’s line “everything is everything” that “good things come to those who wait.” The release she’s been seemingly coiling up for over the entire album happens near the end of this closing track, emitting Yoko Ono-like squeals and even a few chuckles.
Blank Project had even left me thinking that this is the record Yoko Ono should have made last year when she released Take Me To The Land of Hell, which, while had its moments, wasn’t the coherent original statement that Blank Project is in showing how experimental and underground can coexist with currently popular music styles. This is the very thing that’s defined Cherry’s career more than anything else, so while this new album’s angularity isn’t the same kind of angularity of her prior three albums, it’s well in her wheelhouse all the same.
Perhaps she was lured back into the scene by seeing something unaddressed in music today and took it upon herself to handle it. Neneh Cherry did that so effectively with Blank Project, making her full-on comeback record nearly worth the waiting eighteen long years.
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