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Neneh Cherry & The Thing - The Cherry Thing

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Artist: Neneh Cherry & The Thing

Album: The Cherry Thing

Label: Smalltown Supersound

Review date: Jun. 18, 2012

At first glance, Neneh Cherry’s latest looks like a style-crossing free-for-all, the R&B/electronic/hip hop/punk/fashion/DJ diva in collaboration with Swedish free-jazzers, The Thing, all of them working out the kinks of a grab bag of songs from The Stooges, MF Doom, Ornette Coleman and Suicide. Yet while The Cherry Thing seems designed to frustrate any attempt at genre-sorting, it is, itself, fairly cohesive, criss-crossed as it is with non-standard, industry-unsanctioned, personal connections.

For instance, The Thing took its name (and a certain amount of its sound) from a piece by Cherry’s stepfather, Don Cherry. The cornetist (here represented by the gorgeous slink of “Golden Heart”) was himself an outside-the-box type, prone to experiments with non-Western instruments. Cherry, to take it out one more degree, was well known for his work with Ornette Coleman (whose “What Reason Could I Give?” closes the disc), another jazzman known to play with musicians outside his genre. The Thing (whose saxophonist Mats Gustafsson kicks in the cubist funk of “Sudden Moment”) also reaches beyond its improvisatory category, collaborating, as often as not, with rock and punk players. So, from surface heterogeneity emerges a surprising amount of consistency. Neneh Cherry and The Thing sound exactly like themselves in whatever guise they choose — whether skittering over the top of Doom’s “Accordion,” injecting Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” with a gutsy, earthy squawk or distilling the drone of The Stooges’ “Dirt” into a fitful, cerebral bravado.

Neneh Cherry, out of the limelight since 1996, sounds much the same as ever, sultry in a disciplined way, her sensuality encased in a veneer of abstraction and intellect. She follows The Thing’s penchant for irregular, syncopated pacing, chopping torch song theatrics into abrupt, start-and-stop bits of melody. Both she and The Thing — that’s Gustafsson plus Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on acoustic bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums — make vivid use of white space. There’s real drama in the way they make space for one another, intricately stepping forward and back without ever treading on each other’s toes. The parts seem genuinely equal, too, not so much The Thing accompanying Cherry, or Cherry singing for The Thing as an organic, democratic, intertwining conglomeration of all of them. There are lots of moments when Flaten’s bass seems to be the main thing, many others when you can’t help focusing primarily on Nilssen-Love’s rhythms.

The band’s sound (and I am including Cherry) is so distinctive that it has the effect of blurring the considerably diversity in source material, finding the funk in Suicide’s chilly synthesizer grooves, identifying the natural jazz rhythms in Doom’s offkilter phrasing, putting real muscle and swagger into Iggy’s wounded “Dirt.” The individualities of these songs aren’t obscured so much as they are subsumed in Cherry and The Thing’s weirdly compelling aesthetic. I found myself liking the songs best when I didn’t know them very well beforehand. (“Accordion” was my favorite, followed by Gustafsson’s own “Sudden Movement.”) There was just that much less cognitive dissonance to get through.

You have to wonder how Cherry and Gustafsson thought about their collaboration at the beginning — as an exploration of shared influences and experiences? as a one-off experiment? as a goof? — and whether those perceptions changed over time. My feeling is that however it started, this joint project evolved into something unexpectedly powerful, and that it would be a shame if it stopped here.

By Jennifer Kelly

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