Neneh Cherry The Blank Project (Smalltown Supersound)
The Blank Project is a more personal statement from Neneh Cherry than The Cherry Thing, her 2012 collection of covers with free-jazz trio The Thing (which also featured one original from Cherry and one from Thing). If that record provided an insight into her taste, with tracks from Suicide and MF Doom, the follow-up provides more of an insight into her mind.
This time, her collaborators include producer Kieran Hebden (Four Tet), electronic duo RocketNumberNine, and dance-pop star Robyn. They help to keep things moving with ribcage-vibrating drums and searing synths, but it's a more thoughtful enterprise than that description would imply. You could dance to it, but the lyrics are hardly repetitive or innocuous as she questions her relationships ("I'm addicted to you"), worries about her children ("my fear is for my daughters"), and reflects on life learnings ("paper-cup regrets will not stick").
It's pop, jazz, funk, and noise all at once, making it hard to classify, define, and market—especially when they add what sounds like the rattle of a spray can ("Across the Water") and a didgeridoo ("Spit Three Times") to her arsenal (her Ari Up-like vocal ululations on centerpiece track "Everything" are also worthy of note).
And that describes Cherry's career to date, from her days in the Slits and Rip, Rig + Panic to solo albums on which she duets with other musical adventurers, like Tricky and Senegalese vocalist Youssou N'Dour (1996 hit "7 Seconds"). As she sings on "Weightless," the most dance-worthy entry: "I don't fit the right shoes."
I tried to read the newspaper while listening to The Blank Project, but it was difficult. There's background music and there's foreground music, and Cherry doesn't make the former. Nothing wrong with that. It just required an adjustment on my part as I'm usually doing something else while digging into new releases, but after several spins, I settled into her unique groove, and the paper got read.
Neneh's been on a roll for a few years now, and she's making the best music of her life. I wish I could say that about more of her peers from the 1980s, but many have left music, moved in a more commercial direction, or died (like Up, who had a lot of living left to do). For my money, she's up there with Colin Newman and Mark Stewart for keeping it real year after year. Long may she reign.
Smalltown Supersound releases The Blank Project on Feb 25 (stream it now via NPR). These live performances of "Weightless" and the title track are also worth a listen (and yes, that's the multi-talented Alexis Georgopoulos on bass).