If you’ve spent any time over the last few months reading this website, you know that today is Fiona Apple Day, the day that Apple’s long-awaited and crazy-good new album The Idler Wheel… finally sees release. That album is obviously the week’s best album, and quite possibly the year’s as well. But I wrote a long thing about that album a week ago, and I don’t have a lot left to say about it, at least not yet. So instead, let’s take this chance to look at another long-absent, fearless veteran who’s come back to us by turning bits of freaked-out space-jazz into pushing-for-the-stars pop music. The Cherry Thing, on which Neneh Cherry teams up Scandinavian free jazz crew the Thing to cover some very, very good songs isn’t the momentous release that The Idler Wheel… is, but it’s a powerful piece of work regardless.
Time for an ode to Neneh Cherry, who has been one of my favorite people in music since I was about nine years old. Here’s how charmed Neneh Cherry’s artistic life is: On her 1992 sophomore album Homebrew, she had Michael Stipe. Rapping. About the need for sex ed in schools. Over Steppenwolf and Zeppelin samples. This is probably the worst idea anyone has ever had. And it came out awesome. Cherry’s had a pretty fascinating and enviable life: Born in Sweden. Stepdaughter of jazz legend Don Cherry. Raised in a Swedish hippie commune, and then in London, and then in New York. First-wave punk. First-wave postpunk. Rap early adapter. Former New York roommate of Slits leader Ari Up. Shouted out the Wild Bunch, the Bristol breakdancing crew that produced Massive Attack and Tricky, a couple of minutes into her first single, before there was a Massive Attack or a Tricky. Hired Geoff Barrow to engineer her second album before there was a Portishead. Had a gigantic international hit with her first album, lost Best New Artist Grammy to Milli Vanilli, and then spent most of the next few decades at home in Sweden, raising kids hanging out with her family, recording only when the mood struck her. This strikes me as a life well lived.
That first album, Raw Like Sushi, came out during the year my family was living in England, when I was just discovering pop music. Raw Like Sushi was a big deal everywhere, but in London it was huge, and it was everything I liked in pop music all in one place: Breezy harmonies and choppy extra-sass raps and glass-breaking acid house beats. Cherry got the acid house producer Bomb The Bass, who’d made a couple of tracks that were just running shit on London playgrounds — I can’t speak to the clubs, but he had the playgrounds on lock — to make the beat for “Buffalo Stance,” her nuclear first single, and introduced every element of that beat as it came in: “Now tambouriiine! Right now!” She switch fluidly between effortlessly gorgeous singing and all-attitude raps nearly a decade before Lauryn Hill, and she pretty much gave M.I.A. a blueprint for existence. I remember walking into Woolworth and seeing row after row of Raw Like Sushi LPs on the wall, stacked up right next to Michael Jackson’s Bad and the Fine Young Cannibals’ The Raw And The Cooked, thinking her thousand-yard pout was about the toughest thing I’d ever seen. I feel like those first two Cherry albums taught me about as much as a pop album can. They mattered, and they continue to matter, a great deal to me.
I can’t pretend that my feelings about The Cherry Thing aren’t all tangled in my feelings for Cherry as an artist and a human being, and I don’t really see the point. Because The Cherry Thing is really good, and from a certain angle, it’s a continuation of the music she was making 23 years ago. Cherry’s power always lay in her ability to internalize and synthesize all the music around her — pulling it in and spitting it back out with scary levels of charisma. On The Cherry Thing, she’s not doing it with the music around her, but with the music that’s presumably been a part of her life since she was a baby. When she covers her stepfather or his contemporary Ornette Coleman, it seems perfectly natural; she’s spent her entire life surrounded by songs like those. And when she ventures outside jazz, she finds songs that have their own spun-out, half-improvised sensibilities, songs that, despite their differences, aren’t all that far removed from jazz: The Stooges’ “Dirt,” Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream,” Madvillain’s “Accordion.” She doesn’t rap on the album, not even on her Madvillain cover, but her voice floats and dips and conveys furious strength just the same as it always did.
I’m not a jazz guy at all, and I don’t know a lot of the songs that she covers here, but that’s not really an impediment. The players in the Thing don’t seem to be watering down their approach at all, but these are songs, not purely improvised works, and they treat them as such. Even at its most blown-out, The Cherry Thing has melody and rhythm working for it. And Cherry’s a gifted and intuitive enough singer that she knows when to freak out and when to bring thing back down to earth. Interestingly, the Ornette Coleman cover here, of “What Reason,” may be the single most restrained thing on the entire album; it’s a lovingly drawn-out sigh of a song. On the album’s version of “Dirt,” the Stooges’ primordial stomp-riff comes out fully intact, and the band seems just as ready to burst apart as they did, like the riff was the only thing holding the song together. The “Accordion” cover is appealingly freaky, with MF Doom’s free-associations transformed into weirdo slam-poetry. (Cherry gets a couple of lyrics wrong, and I can’t tell if it’s intentional.) And the Cherry Thing take on “Dream Baby Dream” is just shatteringly gorgeous, a crystalline devotional hymn.
The album doesn’t work as a bold statement the way Cherry’s first album did, or as a poignant meditation on family the way her second was. But it’s an old favorite of mine letting us come into her world and watch her dancing around in her memories. It earns respect.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Fiona Apple’s monumental The Idler Wheel…
• The Smashing Pumpkins’ strong comeback effort Oceania.
• Peaking Lights’ gooily familial synth-dub album Lucifer.
• Smoke DZA’s sharp-eyed full-length underground-rap collab with the great producer Harry Fraud Rugby Thompson.
• Blues Control’s scuzzily fiery downtown-rock LP Valley Tangents.
• Beat Connection’s dizzy synth-rock album Palace Garden.
• Detroit producer House Shoes’ rap full-length Let It Go.
• No Joy’s blearily shoegazey Negaverse EP.
• Physical Therapy’s spaz-rave EP Safety Net.