For the past two decades, Neneh Cherry has primarily served as an answer to 80s-minded trivia questions along the lines of “Who sang the hit ‘Buffalo Stance’?”
The stepdaughter of trumpet great Don Cherry seemingly disappeared after crafting two memorable offbeat dance-pop records during the George H. Bush era, and one subpar effort, Man, during Bill Clinton’s reign. She’s sporadically surfaced since, briefly appearing on albums from Pulp and Gorillaz, turns recognized only by ardent fans.
Given the insatiable quest for nostalgia, it’s not surprising to see Cherry return after missing in action for the past 15 years. What’s exciting, however, is the way she saunters back, within a setting that speaks to her punk roots and familial heritage. On The Cherry Thing, the Stockholm native pairs with free-jazz trio The Thing, a formidable ensemble comprised of saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. These are not mellow petal-pushers.
Members of the trio count Ken Vandermark, Atomic, and Thurston Moore among their collaborators. Their presence alone ensures this project isn’t a vanity statement or attention-getting stunt. And Cherry’s quick, early-career stints with the Slits and Nails—as well as the hip originality and social commentary punctuating her 1989 debut’s blend of R&B, hip-hop, and rock—afford her the credibility to tackle fare by Ornette Coleman, Suicide, and MF Doom without coming off as a pretender. She sounds like anything but, often stepping away and letting her mates—on the same footing as the namesake headliner—make the big, slinky, uproarious noise one would expect to find in an underground, late-night European jazz hall.
Cherry contributes only one original, “Cashback,” a tune that casually flaunts flexible rhythmic parameters, her vocals perfumed with a come-hither breathiness that lend to the tune’s chess-like playfulness. As the leadoff track, it serves as a digestible appetizer of what follows: creaking, cracking, squeaking, and bleating horn passages; off-the-hinge solo turns that boil to a frenzy before each instrumentalist retreats to their separate corners; percussion that stays behind the beat, fostering swampy textures and zigzagging lines that trace the arcs of Cherry’s twisty melodic deliveries. While her cohorts occasionally engage in blowout sessions, Cherry retains a cool poise, her timbre smeared with lipstick, sass, and persuasion. The group’s knack for knowing when to hold back, and when to let loose, directly accounts for the record’s exoticism and appeal.
An interpretation of Martina Topley-Bird’s “Too Tough To Die” begins cautiously, evoking visions of late-night danger and mystique. Following the mood-setting intro, Cherry enters with a pouty attitude while the band works into a lather, the arrangement scuffling, rumbling, and driving with inertia. Ugliness and beauty collide on a sublime read of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream,” witness to a mellow finish at odds with the skronk sections plugging up the song’s midsection. The quartet chops the pace of the Stooges’ “Dirt” and lives to brag about it; the progressive build-up collects gunk, grime, and gristle as it moves forward, everyone losing control only after Cherry recites the phrase “touch me.” The climactic eruption underscores a sexual vibe—and reinforces, on what’s one of the most unexpected partnerships in memory, a chemistry that’s as outside-the-box as it is natural. —Bob Gendron