Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"Homebrew," by Neneh Cherry

Neneh Cherry stormed America’s shores in 1989 with her nimble, eclectic, hip-hop-meets-outer-space debut, Raw Like Sushi. That album's three-minute, bump-and-grind marvels, “Buffalo Stance” and “Kisses On The Wind,” charting at #3 and #8, respectively, elevated radio waves to higher ground in the final summer of that neon-filled, Voodoo Economics-lovin’ decade. But Cherry’s music wasn’t just refreshing, nestled alongside 1989 radio slop like “Girl You Know It’s True” and “Bat Dance,” it was revelatory.

And as refreshing as Raw Like Sushi was, Homebrew, Cherry’s magnificent follow-up, is a staggering leap forward. Cherry takes the jazz / trip-hop improvisations from the first album and injects them here with rock guitars, hypnotic beats, and mischievous, dance floor sass. To wit, “Sassy,” the album’s opener, is accompanied by a vacuum-powered drumbeat and sprinkled with playful piano fills. The brilliant lead song features hip-hop / jazz MC, Guru (Gang Starr), who pokes fun at Cherry’s Mama Bear swagger and trumpets the artist’s explosive return. “Fellas got to give me the most respect, cause you know I don't like to waste my time, so don't give me that - I'm laying low! I sizzle slow!” Cherry brags, leading into the song’s hook, a whispered, repetitious, “so sassy…”

Focusing less on rap this time around, Homebrew retains Cherry’s favorite themes: family, children, and motherhood, and the album leans more on the trance-induced template of Sushi’s haunting, “Manchild,” to set the mood. Cuts like “Move With Me (my personal favorite),” “Peace In Mind,” and the album’s haunting-yet-hopeful closer, “Red Paint,” expand “Manchild’s” musical palette of lacerated drums and spine-chilling, slow motion atmospherics. In fact, over half of the album riffs on this sonic style that remains startlingly fresh almost 20 years later.

The only song I always skip on this remarkable album is Cherry's much-touted duet with REM's Michael Stipe, "Trout." Rock critics, seemingly compelled to favor the track, often write things like, "this unlikely duet about teaching sex education in schools is risky, but it works somehow." Wrong. It doesn't work. The song is irritating, ill-conceived, and preachy (and I agree with its politics!). "Trout" is a pimple on a model and the only head-scratcher on Homebrew.

But although Cherry’s commercial success essentially stalled with Sushi, her influence continues to grow, with sampling and collaborations with and by other artists, ranging from the Gorillaz, Youssou N'Dour, and Groove Armada to the 2006 acoustic styled duet, “Long Way Round,” with her brother, Eagle-Eye (“Save Tonight”) Cherry. Cherry’s 1996 follow-up to Homebrew, the sluggish and envelop-pushing Man, was deemed too un-commercial and experimental for American audiences and was never released outside Europe. These days, Cherry can be heard in the side project, “CirKus,” along with her daughter and husband, and Cherry fans eagerly await a new studio effort, promised, promised, promised...

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