The fall from fame can be debilitating for many a pop star. But, for those who survive, it can actually be liberating. That certainly seems to be the case for Neneh Cherry, who hung at the top of the charts in her ubiquitous “Buffalo Stance” in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s before the menace of gangsta rap and angst of grunge rock pushed her brand of high-energy dance music to the periphery. Fifteen years after her last solo album, Cherry re-emerges, backed by Swedish jazz mavericks The Thing, to deliver a project that spins the conventional standards album–and her own club queen persona–on their respective heads.
Where most re-make collections raid the musical canon, paying homage to radio icons of the 20th Century from George Gershwin through Stevie Wonder, Cherry and The Thing play in the margins, digging up cult favorites from niche innovators. The Stooge’s “Dirt” gets slowed down and funked up, driven by a muscular bassline and breathily menacing vocals from Cherry. The airy new wave template of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” gets an even more radical makeover, with tribal drums and a deceptively mellow saxophone creating an organic and soulful backdrop for Cherry’s tender vamps. Perhaps most daring is a freeform jazz re-imagining of MF Doom’s “Accordion,” with Cherry vacillating between jazz-styled riffs and spoken word theatrics while The Thing gradually builds to a cacophony of horns and drums.
But, freedom can be a dangerous thing, and at times, The Cherry Thing can veer into self-indulgence. A brooding rendition of Mats Gustafsson’s “Sudden Moments” never quite takes shape and meanders for at least three minutes too long. And, Cherry’s vocals on “Golden Heart”–her father, Don Cherry’s, signature tune–feel oddly lifeless, and get lost in the overly busy instrumentation. It is at once timid and over-ambitious.
While the project may not rack up repeat spins for most listeners, the sheer boldness will certainly hold attention whenever it does land in the deck. And, at a time when artists go from chart-toppers to Vh-1 trivia questions in a matter of months, it is more than a little inspiring to see what can result when artists manage to dust themselves off after the fall.