Neneh Cherry was a familiar face and voice in the early-to-mid 90s, but has disappeared off the scene altogether in the 16 years since her last album. The Cherry Thing isn’t likely to put her back on top, but it’s great to have her back.
However, anyone hoping for more songs like her most ‘recent’ hits Woman and 7 Seconds (that beautiful duet with Youssou N’Dour) will be disappointed, because this collaboration with Swedish free jazz collective The Thing is not along those lines in anyway. The key words in that sentence were ‘free jazz’.
But wait! Come back! There’s always been a jazziness to her music, even when it was overshadowed by the soul, hip-hop and pop influences, and The Cherry Thing is not as wilfully experimental as ‘free jazz’ might suggest, nor as big a leap for her fans to take. It’s challenging, but not impossibly so.
It’s largely a collection of covers that show the diverse range of styles that continue to influence Cherry, from The Stooges to Suicide to fellow Gorillaz collaborators MF Doom and Martina Topley-Bird (all three performed on Demon Days). Converting such disparate songs into the style of The Thing must have been a challenge, but the results are rewarding.
The Cherry Thing kicks off though with a funky, jazzy original from Cherry, called Cashback. It’s a perfect way to ease her audience into this new sound and leads nicely into a great cover of Dream Baby Dream by Suicide – a song also covered in the last few years by Bruce Springsteen. Topley-Bird’s Too Tough To Die is even better, before the first real challenge comes along.
The Thing’s Mats Gustafsson penned Sudden Movement, and you can instantly tell that it’s operating on a different level to the rest of the material. He’s apparently a bit of a legend on the saxophone in the Swedish free jazz scene, and gets the chance to show why on this track, though more casual listeners might find their attention wavering as it goes on.
Something completely different follows with Accordian, an MF Doom track from Madvillainy, and hearing Cherry replicate his rapping over the jazzy background could have been a recipe for disaster, but actually works very well. Golden Heart is a very personal choice, being a track by Don Cherry, Neneh’s jazz-playing stepfather. The Thing took their name from one of his other cuts, so it’s an appropriate song to play.
And then we’ve got Dirt, by The Stooges, a world away from free jazz in genre, but not spirit. It’s a riotous affair that doesn’t sound the least bit tame for lacking the snarling Iggy Pop or the raging guitars, and it’s probably the best track here. Neneh Cherry’s return to solo work after years of guest appearances and low-key collaborations will take a lot of people by surprise because of how it sounds, but the biggest surprise for most might be how much they actually like it.