• Smalltown Supersound

Neneh Cherry & The Thing
Smalltown Supersound

Since she's the stepdaughter of Don Cherry, I always hoped Neneh Cherry would move in more of a jazz-oriented direction, and that impulse culminates in The Cherry Thing, a collaboration with Scandinavian improv ensemble The Thing (according to their label, the trio "took its name from a piece by Don Cherry: when they first got together it was to play his music").

The eight-song set combines Neneh's unique intonation with Mats Gustafsson's untethered sax wanderings, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten's subterranean bass rumbles, and Paal Nilssen-Love's deep-dark drumming. After a flirtation with the mainstream, this more "out" affair suits her well (the two originals, Gustafsson's "Sudden Movement" and Cherry's "Cashback" blend in seamlessly).

There's also a video for the Four Tet remix...but I prefer the studio version.

In some ways, The Cherry Thing feels like the kind of music Nina Simone would be making if she were still around—or the kind of music I imagine her making. Cherry's voice isn't that deep or as rich, but she projects a similar unfuckwithable spirit, particularly on Martina Topley-Bird's "Too Tough to Die," which sent shivers down my spine the first time I heard it. Another spine-tingling moment arrives with Cherry's radical reinvention of MF Doom's "Accordion," in which she loses herself in lyrics about "glory, gold, and glitter" (fair warning: liberal use of the "n" word).

I already wrote about her vibe-bedecked version of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream," the set highlight, in this post (and now she's released an evocative video to accompany it—props for the pregnant breakdancer). As such, it's interesting that the record represents a European co-production because it harkens back to the Lower East Side from which Alan Vega and Martin Rev sprang. I could easily see Cherry and The Thing sharing a bill with Defunkt and James Chance & the Contortions, and fitting right in. Ironically, the most conventional moment arrives with Ornette Coleman's "What Reason," which evokes the indelible Abbie Lincoln.

Bursting with energy and inspiration, The Cherry Thing easily earns a spot on my year-end top 10 list. Anyone anticipating a fresh crop of crossover hits may find the free-form rambling exasperating, but I've been waiting for Cherry to return to her jazz-punk roots, and she dives in head first. If I'm not totally convinced by the Stooges' cover, "Dirt," which trades blues for an ill-fitting suit of jazz, the attitude of defiance in the face of disrespect offers neat counterpoint to "Cashback." All told, there isn't a song here with Top 40 appeal: just the way I like it.

Read Cherry's interview with The Guardian here. Smalltown Supersound releases The Cherry Thing today. It's also available for streaming at NPR.