When Neneh Cherry made that huge international splash in 1989 with her debut album, Raw Like Sushi, it was the result of a big collaborative effort, or, as she put it, “just having fun with my friends.” The Sweden-born and US- and UK-raised singer-songwriter put the record together with producer Cameron McVey (her soon-to-be husband), Tim Simenon of Bomb the Bass, and various members of the Bristol (England) Wild Bunch collective, including DJ Nellee Hooper, and future founders of Massive Attack 3D, and Mushroom. But she also happened to be one of the most charismatic female performers of her generation, who galvanized the 11 distinctive pop/rap/dance songs with her energy, attitude, sexiness, and bomber-jacket cool, while providing the perfect street-tough antidote to the ubiquitous girl-next-door tweeness of Kylie Minogue. She was central, indeed, to a new era of defiant women in hip-hop, who influenced everyone from MIA to Rihanna to daughters Mabel and TYSON, without letting a little thing like being six months pregnant compromise her dance moves on Top of the Pops.
Cherry now cites a collaborative spirit in the revival of such iconic Sushi tracks as “Buffalo Stance” and “Manchild” on The Versions, billed as a Neneh Cherry album while, in fact, featuring a bumper crop of current female artists taking the lead on her tunes. You might call it a tribute album, but Cherry calls it a collection that came about by “asking some of the favorite divine women of our time to record their own versions of these pieces.” She also says it’s the outcome of “a new generation of visionaries” reworking the tracks on the understanding that she doesn’t “own” them. And while the Sushi numbers are the most prominent of the ten included here (with both “Buffalo Stance” and one version of “Manchild” having been released as singles), the assembled artists also offer new takes on material across the singer’s subsequent two albums: 1992’s Homebrew, and 1996’s Man.
Cherry’s effusions suggest the point of The Versions is, essentially, to update her signature songs and make them newly relevant in 2022, which, on the whole, it succeeds in doing. Not so much in a punchy and urgent way, as a ruminative and trip-hoppy way. Cherry has handpicked the artists predominantly from her pool of friends, like fellow Swedish pop great Robyn (famous for EDM bangers “Dancing on My Own” and “Call Your Girlfriend”), and Australian singer Sia (famous for epic electropop hit “Chandelier”), as well as Kelsey Lu (her “sister from another planet”), Greentea Peng, and Jamila Woods. And they’re all in pretty mellow states of being on this record.
It’s Robyn, though, who’s under most pressure to deliver on The Versions. This is from taking on Cherry’s much celebrated and rarely covered “Buffalo Stance,” which is probably even more 1988 than perestroika or Tom Hanks in Big, with its references to Ray Petri’s Buffalo fashion house, its scratching, and its sampling of Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Girls.” But you wouldn’t know it. Robyn’s got the airy vocals sorted on the chorus, and she’s got elite R&B producer Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange) helping to strip it down and make it all slow and moody, by way of a wonderfully trancey guitar riff. She’s also got Swedish-American hip-hop singer Mapei on the rap verses, brilliantly channeling Neneh’s swagger, if not her aggression and funkiness. She therefore offers a far less confrontational expression of female empowerment and sexual freedom than the original, but still lets the melting pot of influences shine through, while re-illuminating those wildly original lyrics.
Sia’s “Manchild” is markedly less transformed from Cherry’s original, which was a huge UK hit in 1989. But the singer gives it a raw quality with her seemingly damaged (and definitely divisive) voice, adding to the song’s personal and sympathetic perspective on a man’s vulnerability. “Maybe someone else will love you,” she appeals beautifully, while “Chandelier” producer Jesse Shatkin summons up gritty hip-hop beats and lush orchestrations, to moving and powerful effect. Former Antony and the Johnsons singer Anohni, meanwhile, brings her mournful vocals to “Woman,” Cherry’s subversion of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” She instills it with the same kind of gravitas she would a Leonard Cohen number, taking the formerly anthemic piece of female empowerment to unimaginable heights of stark, somber, piano-based intensity. And perhaps overcooking it.
More successful is what London singer Greentea Peng does to electropop Homebrew track “Buddy X,” which is to make it into a gloriously psychedelic garage number, with the kind of glitchy electronics and synthesized weirdness that Thom Yorke would be proud of. Even more successful, particularly in the wake of Jamila Woods’ unraunchy rendition of the formerly raunchy “Kootchi,” is what Sudan Archives does to “Heart.” The Los Angeles violinist-singer recently achieved amazing things on Yoko Ono tribute album Ocean Child, and she is clearly some kind of genius in reinventing songs. Here she takes a punchy rap number and turns it into a sparse yet soaring aural concoction of violin, claps, percussion, and ethereal vocals.
TYSON successfully pulls off “Sassy” with her inherent sassiness, and Kelsey Lu is in fine voice on her dark and anxious rendition of “Manchild,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on Massive Attack’s Mezzanine. This before Cherry herself finally appears, Agent Cooper style, on the closing track, a thumping Honey Dijon house remix of “Buddy X.” It’s here that she reminds us instantly of her vitality as a performer after a largely subdued journey. But a journey, nonetheless, that celebrates her unique skills as a songwriter and collaborator.
The Versions track listing:
1. Buffalo Stance – Robyn feat Mapei
2. Manchild – Sia
3. Woman – Anohni
4. Buddy X – Greentea Peng
5. Kootchi – Jamila Woods
6. Sassy – TYSON
7. Hearts – Sudan Archives
8. Kisses On The Wind – Seinabo Sey
9. Manchild – Kelsey Lu
10. Buddy X Remix – Honey Dijon