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The Rock’s Backpages Rewind: Whatever Happened to Neneh Cherry?

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Don Snowden delves into the whereabouts of the sassy gal who gave us 'Buffalo Stance' — and attempts to bring her story up to date——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

The original title for this piece was "Ticked Off at a Tick". The reason being that I spent more than a few years operating under the misconception that the Lyme's Disease Neneh Cherry came down with right around the time 'Buffalo Stance' hit worldwide was behind her oh-so-limited recorded output — a mere three full albums in her solo career and then largely dropping off the map after 1996. A journey to Google/Wikiworld set me straight on the Lyme's front — ran its course within a year — but did little to dispel the mystery over why so little music had been heard from someone so talented.

'Buffalo Stance' really had seemed like a clarion call for the dawning of some new day when it burst on the scene. It was simply a glorious song, pulling diverse musical strands together into a cohesive whole that was catchy as hell and most importantly signaled the arrival of a new artist with the potential to be highly influential, a young woman who projected strong, sexy and streetwise in equal measure.

Certainly Raw Like Sushi delivered on that promise and displayed the range of the sources Cherry was capable of drawing off and would draw on in her songs with impressive savvy and insight. Even as 'Buffalo Stance' told off gigolo suckers in no uncertain terms, 'Manchild' used swelling strings to accompany its portrait of a young man coming of age. And 'Kisses in the Wind', with its mix of street-verite girl rapping and recurring Jimmy Castor 'Troglodyte' sample, is an even better snapshot capturing a particular life moment from a young woman's perspective. Not that I would have any way of knowing for sure, but "Boys, boys/Wrapped around her finger/So young/Making love was only dreaming" just seems to freeze-frame a phase of some young girls' lives perfectly. Who turn into 'Inna City Mammas' and wind up bouncing the "Next Generation" on their laps, all grist for the songwriting mill here and enough to suddenly make me wonder if there was some sort of (conscious or unconscious) concept design at play with the sequencing. Off Raw Like Sushi, it was hard to picture any finer model for that incipient "you go, girl" generation than Neneh Cherry — mixed race, mixed cultures, mixed musical styles, hell, everything in the mix and Neneh Cherry very definitely in command of determining the outlines of her own final mix.

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It figured the level of early-career mass popularity afforded by 'Buffalo Stance', coupled with a fresh songwriting approach that made savvy use of the mix 'n' match, scratch and sample techniques then on the cutting edge of R&B/hip-hop would set Cherry up for a long run as a new school diva with smarts to burn. It should have become even more inevitable when she followed Raw and the Lyme/tick interlude with arguably her greatest single performance — the devastating version of Cole Porter's 'I've Got You Under My Skin' on the Red Hot & Blue AIDS benefit CD.

Everything about her reading cuts deep to the bone, from the chilling new implications the song title and lyrics acquire in this context to the truth-telling opening rap and that slightly off — ominously off — bass keyboard lick that runs throughout the song. And when that sinister Fender Rhodes or clavinet lick drops in around the two-minute mark, the effect is...I'm sorry, it's not out of insensitivity, but the word that always comes to my mind is deadly. That is the final element falling into place to complete the emotional backdrop of the song, a musical landscape that evokes the dread and horror of what it must feel like to be trapped inside that body betrayal ("I got you deep, deep in the heart of me"). Cherry's singing evokes the dread and horror even as she waxes prevention-wise with outro vocal tags ("Share the love/Don't share the needle", "Use your mentality/Wake up to reality") that sound like anything but shallow moralizing, just matter-of-fact, voice-of experience admonitions to be smart. Harrowing as it is, 'I Got You Under My Skin' shows Cherry doing what a great artist does, taking a song and absolutely transforming it.

So she seemed to be perfectly positioned but things changed by the time Homebrew rolled along in 1992. Where Sushi was pure city street life, grounded in hip-hop and in-your-face direct, her second album was far more diffuse, like a collection of individual tracks thrown together w/guest turns from all over the map, from a Gang Starr rap to Michael Stipe vocal, and co-writing credits for Lenny Kravitz and Portishead trip-hop honcho Geoff Barlow. 'Move With Me' was a pretty affecting ballad with another strong lyric chorus, "I knew a young girl by the name of Susie/Now she sleeps with her arm on her Uzi" was one helluva modern world couplet, and it was pretty amusing to hear Stipe singing sex ed on 'Trout' over a Steppenwolf guitar lick and arena rock drums. But 'Move With Me' aside, the only song that really stuck was 'Buddy X', another one of Cherry's specialty-of-the-house gigolo sucker putdowns, this time on a more domestic cheating on your partner level, and even that doesn't end so much as fall apart around a bluesy piano tag.

Where Sushi was focused and definite, Homebrew sounded indistinct and gauzy, like the sound was filtered through veils and lyrics from scenes dimly glimpsed through curtains. Maybe that just reflect my old-school wish for sonic clarity that engages you when her music was beginning to break down and move towards atmospheric keyboard washes cued by Cherry's involvement with the-then incipient Bristol trip hop scene. But the songs that cut through the murk prominently featured guitar in the arrangements, uncharacteristic for her at the time but a harbinger of things to come when she returned to the fray after a four-year hiatus.

Man was another surprise, more song-oriented and structured incorporating textures rather than leading from textures, the songs built around guitars rather than beats, bass and keyboards. It's basically an alternative rock songwriter disc as much as anything because virtually all musical references to her initial dance/R&B/hip-hop days are gone, unless the cover of Marvin Gaye's 'Trouble Man' counts. The centrepieces are two stately, string-driven ballads: 'Woman', Cherry's sharply conceived recasting of JB's 'Man's World' and the '7 Seconds' duet with Youssou N'Dour that became an omnipresent (as in very long-lived — hell, I still hear it a lot) European hit and paean to international brother/sisterhood. And who better from the English-speaking world to pair up with N'Dour for that kind of intercontinental anthem than Neneh Cherry?

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And who else would follow it on her own disc with a pair of odes waxing frankly carnal a la 'Kootchi', erotic anticipation growing against thundering guitar, and 'Bestiality', with acoustic guitar strum and loopy organ framing a chorus hook of "What love, what hate/Could reach the point of no return"? Flamencoid guitar runs in 'Golden Ring' acknowledge Cherry's living in southern Spain when the album was made but it's the steady rolling groove and skilled wordplay funnin' in the lyric couplets of 'Hornbeam' that has been sticking with me when listening to it again.

Amazingly, Man didn't receive an official U.S. release (still hasn't, as far as I know), which seems fairly remarkable given Cherry's commercial tracks record. Certainly it didn't help that her albums were so divergent, since falling into the classification cracks always was anathema to the music business and the kiss of death in these brand-o-centric times. Maybe she just got swamped and washed under a sea of grungy flannel, new Brit pop and resurgent U.S. hip-hop that rolled in during the '90s. Cherry did make her big commercial breakthrough dealing on R&B-rooted dance and hip-hop inspired sounds, and there always a pronounced tendency to dismiss female singers in that zone as disposable, dispensable divas (often with good reason, too).

But not in her case, and it's hard to imagine a male artist with a similar profile of recent commercial success wouldn't even get their third album released. I wouldn't be surprised if a major part of the reason was simply a long-standing industry preference (not just music, you could apply it to movies, too) for dealing with female performers who project as openly vulnerable and even cracking under the strain than strong and sure of themselves. Better to celebrate an Amy Winehouse than a Neneh Cherry, just as better to sanctify a Janis Joplin than Grace Slick back in their day.

And then, after Man... nothing, for all intents and purposes.

Yeah, there are Googleland sightings out there for the odd re-mix projects and collaborations to be found but nothing that signified a next step for Neneh herself. The ongoing family demands of raising that generation that was once bouncing in her lap undoubtedly played a major role, but then again she always seemed to operate and move according to her own artistic clock and rhythm. Probably not surprising given her family background — I interviewed her stepfather Don Cherry and he definitely followed his own improviser muse (not to mention globetrotting gypsy ways) in all facets of life. So I was pleasantly surprised amidst the sadness of reading a Vivien Goldman piece last May on the original London punk rock women contingent after Poly Styrene moved on to the next phase (preceded by Ari Up six months before) and find that Cherry was now actively involved in the group cirKus, a family affair with her daughter and husband.

So Spotify time for a listen to Laylow, a bargain price buy of Medicine and...well, frankly all this cirKus turned into a kind of Where's Neneh? version of Where's Waldo? because finding audible traces of her on those discs is none too easy. Laylow had some sign of her presence, indirect or direct, since 'You're Such an... (Asshole)' was another gigolo sucker putdown (uptown Ferrari cruisin' for chicks division, this time out) that always seem to inspire her best efforts. But Medicine, maybe her voice is buried somewhere in the background masse but it sure is hard to pick out, and every time I first look up and notice the music is actually playing, the read-out always tells me it's already on track five and that's never a good sign. Medicine actually closes fairly strongly but its atmospheric textures just drift too much the rest of the time.

So we wind up with Neneh in musical limboland once again but then an interview appeared in the Spanish paper El Pais last October that reported Cherry is apparently in the process of writing and selecting material for a new solo release. Good news, indeed, although after 15-odd years of near silence, more than a few wait-and-see grains of salt are in order. The rep from her past solo work and even earlier, pre-'Buffalo' association with punk-era experimentalists Rip, Rig & Panic, Pop Group, New Age Steppers, et al (assuming they've reached retro underground hip critical mass by now) and involvement in the early founding days of Bristol trip hop scene would seem to work in her favor this time around.

But who knows whether Cherry has ascended to godmama status for Gaga youth or even what her new music may sound like today. And...ummm....well, looks like the only way to end this is to resort to ye oldest of journalism clichés and simply say that whether anything concrete happens or if Neneh Cherry can have any meaningful impact in these 21st century times remains to be seen.

© Don Snowden, 2012

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