Neneh Cherry: The Versions review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week

Sia, Robyn and Anohni are among those interpreting Cherry’s back catalogue, but it works best when it strays from the big hits

Neneh Cherry’s creative and critical resurgence over the past 10 years has been hugely pleasing. She has made challenging new albums that speak volumes about her restless musical spirit, enjoyed the retrospective glow of seeing her 1989 debut album Raw Like Sushi given the deluxe 30th anniversary treatment and found herself feted as a pioneer by a host of younger artists. The latter process continues on The Versions, which arranges an array of female talent to pay homage to Cherry in time-honoured tribute album style, from cello-playing LA outlier Kelsey Lu to Honey Dijon, who turns in a house remix of Buddy X.

The cover of The Versions.
Neneh Cherry: The Versions album cover Photograph: Publicity image

It’s all a trickier proposition than you might expect. One reason Cherry remained so fixed in people’s memories during the 18 years that separated her third album from her fourth was the force of her personality: it was ingrained in her music, whether she was rapping, singing or essaying something Radio 2-friendly in the company of Youssou N’Dour. It’s why there have hardly been any covers of her work: you might have thought that a girl group would have had a crack at Buffalo Stance, but they haven’t, because Cherry inhabits the song so completely that there’s little room for interpretation.

It’s the reason why The Versions sometimes falls a little flat, compounded by the fact that most of the artists stick fast to the best-known tracks from her three best-known albums – Raw Like Sushi, its follow-up, Homegrown, and 1996’s Man – rather than venturing into the more recherché corners of her oeuvre. No one’s bold enough to tackle anything from her skronky album with jazz trio the Thing or 2014’s raw, challenging Blank Project, and it might have made for a more eclectic and surprising set if they had.

As it is, they do their best. Greentea Peng reworks Buddy X as cluttered two-step garage – perhaps a nod to the Dreem Team’s UK garage rework, a minor hit in 1999 – while Anohni makes heavy weather out of Woman, as is Anohni’s wont: mournful vocals set against sparse piano and intermittent bursts of industrial noise. They’re both perfectly fine, although you struggle to imagine reaching for them instead of Cherry’s originals. The same is true of Robyn and Mapei’s version of Buffalo Stance (stripped back, with the song’s “gigolo” insult updated to “fuckboy” and something of the original’s swagger lost along the way) and Sia’s Manchild, which replaces the stately orchestration of Cherry’s Massive Attack-assisted version with woozy synth.

But it’s on Jamila Woods’s version of Kootchi where you miss Cherry most keenly. The original is an odd track, with guitars that initially sound influenced by Britpop (it was the mid-90s) but that gradually turn more sprawling, heavy and psychedelic, with cinematic strings and sections where the vocal is marooned over beatless electronic noise. It’s held together by Cherry’s voice, which sounds gleefully filthy, delivering lyrics that deal with her partner’s belly, poor table manners and shortcomings as a driver with an improbable salaciousness as if every one of them is an enticement. Woods’s voice, however, tends to the cutesy and girlish. When the chorus hits the line about wanting to kootchi-koo with you, Woods sounds as if she actually means she likes speaking in baby-talk, which Cherry definitely doesn’t.

Seinabo Sey’s Kisses on the Wind is a far more successful makeover, stripping away its Latin freestyle-influenced sound and none-more-1988 use of the old “what we’re gonna do right here is go back” Jimmy Castor sample, slowing the tempo, giving the vivid lyrics more space to breathe: “A local neighbourhood crush, the boys would hide out and watch her hanging washing on the line.”

Generally, though, The Versions gets better the further away it moves from Cherry’s big hits. Her daughter Tyson’s take on Sassy is great, a gentle update of its Gang Starr-boosted jazzy hip-hop. The obvious highlight is Sudan Archives’ Heart, the one track that improves on Cherry’s own version. On Raw Like Sushi, Heart sounded punchy, but was a little too close to Buffalo Stance redux to be fully satisfying. Sudan Archives turns the song inside out: the rhythm is reduced to the thud of a bass drum and handclaps, her west African-influenced violin playing soars, backing vocals swoop in and out. The moment where she breaks from singing and launches into a characteristically snappy Cherry rhyme – part stinging diss, part playground chant, it rhymes “salami” with “full of baloney” – is a total joy.

You would struggle to describe The Versions as anything other than a mixed bag. The weird thing is that it somehow works as a tribute to Neneh Cherry regardless of the contributions’ quality: the good tracks emphasise what a fantastic songwriter she is, and the less successful ones make you feel her absence and underline her uniqueness as a performer. Either way, you leave it thinking – quite rightly – that its subject is amazing.

This week Alexis listened to

Lord Huron: Your Other Life

From the recent deluxe edition of last year’s excellent Long Lost: nearly five minutes of stately, beautifully orchestrated melancholy.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Arca: Kick ii, iii, iiii, iiiii review | Alexis Petridis's albums of the week
Four new albums of extravagantly warped electronics offer listeners a lot to take in – and her most pop-focused music to date

Alexis Petridis

03, Dec, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Neneh Cherry: Blank Project – review
Those who only know Neneh Cherry's pop hits might be surprised by this decidedly leftfield album, but it's a bold work that suits her well, writes Alexis Petridis

Alexis Petridis

20, Feb, 2014 @5:00 PM

Article image
‘The canon is so heavy with the male genius’: Neneh Cherry and Robyn on changing the face of pop
As they reboot the classic Buffalo Stance, the friends talk sisterhood, being Swedish and fighting the system

Laura Snapes

04, Mar, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Slowthai: Ugly review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Fusing rap, alt-rock and abrasive electronics, the Northampton rapper mints a sound all his own on his third album

Alexis Petridis

02, Mar, 2023 @12:00 PM

Article image
Gabriels: Angels and Queens Part One review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Frontman Jacob Lusk is nothing short of incredible on the trio’s debut album, a powerful half-hour of top-tier songwriting that proves Gabriels are far more than soul revivalists

Alexis Petridis

29, Sep, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
Koffee: Gifted review – eclectic and appealing reggae by Jamaica’s next big star
The debut album from Koffee, AKA Mikayla Simpson, skilfully occupies the space between Afrobeats, dancehall and pop

Alexis Petridis

24, Mar, 2022 @11:30 AM

Article image
David Bowie: Toy review – 1960s gems polished on lost album
Recorded in 2000 but unreleased, Toy, in a new box set of latterday albums, sees Bowie revisit the past just before he struck out into new territory

Alexis Petridis

25, Nov, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
Aitch: Close to Home review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Referencing the Stone Roses and featuring Shaun Ryder, the Manchester rapper’s debut album stops short of a second coming – but it pushes his musical boundaries and subverts traditional hip-hop narratives

Alexis Petridis

18, Aug, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
Prince: Welcome 2 America review – the best album of his last two decades
Prince’s stock as a recording artist was low in 2010, so it makes weird sense for this work to appear in 2021, getting the posthumous attention it deserves

Alexis Petridis

22, Jul, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
Nilüfer Yanya: Miss Universe review – anxiety dreams from a true original | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Full of 21st-century disquiet, the singer-songwriter uses skits and skewed alt-rock to take aim at the spurious ‘wellness’ industry

Alexis Petridis

14, Mar, 2019 @12:00 PM