Neneh Cherry / The Thing, The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Superjazz)
Effectively bringing an end to her twenty years in the wilderness - with Man refused a stateside release, this is her first US-available solo recording since 1994’s Homebrew - this collection of covers plus two originals may seem like a placeholder, especially given the backing band, a Norwegian acoustic jazz trio named after a track by Neneh’s departed father. Only this jazz trio rocks plenty hard, courtesy of Ingebrigt Håker Flaten’s killer bass lines, Paal Nilssen-Love’s stop-and-start rhythms, and the reed freakouts of indefatigable Swedish visionary Mats Gustafsson. In this capacity, jazz operates in a specific framework, beholden to the well-chosen tunes - when Cherry drops out, the band surges forward and/or stretches out. But she’s hardly in the way, having fun with MF Doom’s absurd rhymes throughout “Accordion,” falling back against funky baritone sax on Tricky acolyte Martina Topley-Bird’s “Too Tough To Die,” gamely grunting along to the art-punk crawl of the Stooges’ “Dirt,” and highlighting the inherent compositional conservatism of Suicide’s ‘50s ballad “Dream Baby Dream” for nine engaging minutes. A more demonstrative singer might have worked harder to claim these songs as her own. But divas never risk being upstaged by their backing bands. Here, all players operate as equals.
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (Epic)
As arch as The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and with less humor - the best laugh lines here are supplied by the percussion parts. But it’s also more organic and far sexier than Joni Mitchell’s boho dance, despite a level of narcissism startling even by singer-songwriter standards (although not necessarily by Fiona Apple standards). Key to her complex, clever poetics is a weary yet prideful resignation with being out of step in her world, although one listens in vain for concrete cultural / political flashpoints, since she’d never be so gauche as to actually outline the peripheral phenomena that’s getting her down. All those fractured hooks, piano trills, and bravura vocal tricks are subservient to non-confessional statements of emotional fact, namely Why I Am Difficult and Why I Cannot Be Loved, and if that seems an oversimplification, note that a key lyric flatly and repeatedly queries “how can I ask anyone to love me / when all I do is beg to be left alone?” That bit of self-therapy is less adroit than “look at me / I’m all the fish in the sea,” but it’s far preferable to overstatements like “I ran out of white dove feathers / to soak up the hot piss that comes through your mouth / every time you address me,” which is still a lyrical coup of sorts. When the claustrophobia finally lifts, it’s thanks to a bonus track parsing the welcoming confines of an L.A. club where friends and contemporaries congregate, all thoughts of white dove feathers banished as this New Yorker takes her lumps with many another wandering modern, hopping scotches and downing drinks over an infectious series of rhyming lines. You can even sing along with the chorus the first listen through.
Actress, R.I.P. (Honest Jon’s)
Darren Cunningham’s brand of electronic music may not be post-dance, but it’s certainly post-dancefloor, with beats largely suppressed or merely absent. Disdaining the climax as surely as he disdains the ascent, Cunningham’s circular fragments are often purposeless in a manner both not-bad and infuriating, admirably grimy in a digital-to-dust move that makes claims for distinctive sonic worlds on nearly every track. Yet he consistently courts pedantic exercise. Admittedly, some of his experiments have the capacity to charm and/or thrill, as witness the lovely electric harp plinkings on “Jardin” (Cluster at their most childlike) or the bass line on “Caves Of Paradise” barreling ahead unapologetically. Elsewhere (“Shadow From Tartarus”), the experiments are far more leaden.
Michael Kiwanuka, Home Again (Polydor)
This unabashedly retro UK soul singer arrives with a compelling back story (Ugandan parents fled the Amin regime to Muswell Hill), session work (guitarist), supporting roles to big names (Adele), prizes (winner of BBC’s Sound of 2012), and a checklist of references including Bill Withers and Otis Redding. The former fits inasmuch as Withers exemplified a folk-soul immediacy as much beholden to singer-songwriter technique as southern grit. The latter simply doesn’t fit at all, although Brits raised on Mick Hucknell or Joss Stone may be forgiven the hyperbole. Actually, the most obvious comparison I hear within these pleasant mid-tempo tracks is none other than Jack Johnson, for better or worse. Kiwanuka’s voice goes to better places than Johnson’s for sure, and he gets period details right - those backing singers are straight-up Jordinaires. But it’s troubling that the best standalone song here by a wide margin is the bonus cut, a soaring piece of stripped-down country rock called “Lasan”.
DIIV, Oshin (Captured Tracks)
In which the “touring guitarist” for noted echo-shimmer guitar outfit Beach Fossils decamps to a side project in order to escape the strict confines of his main gig. Result: echo-shimmer guitar outfit DIIV. Noticeable differences between this outfit and that: vocals slightly more buried, instrumental passages slightly longer, “Air Conditioner” slightly reminiscent at times of Television, drummer slightly more insistent. Slightly.
Jill Scott, Crates: Remix Fundamentals, Vol. 1 (Hidden Beach)
Hardly an album - more the desperate actions of a record label doing its best to capitalize on the dwindling resources left exploitable after the artist shifted to Warner Bros., making this the seventh of ten “Jill Scott” “albums” on Hidden Beach that are compilations, live recordings, or remix projects. While the former are merely unnecessary, this stuff is just wrongheaded, unsympathetically recasting a fairly insightful and quite likable r&b troubadour into tepid club diva squelch and whoosh. Jazzy Jeff handles “A Long Walk” with some aplomb, Ron Trent oversees an interesting groove throughout a 10-minute “Spring Summer Feeling,” and in every other example, the mild downtown originals are sacrificed in favor of sleek uptown background music.