In many ways Neneh Cherry’s first solo album in 18 years (since 1996’s Man) is almost as much of a collaboration as her excellent 2012 record with Swedish free jazzers The Thing; the difference, and why this is being referred to as a ‘solo’ album I guess, is that Neneh wrote the ‘songs’ for this (‘songs’ in scare-quotes because ‘what is a song?’), whereas most of The Cherry Thing was covers (plus one tune each by Cherry and Thing-leader Mats Gustafsson). Small differences.
Anyway, Neneh wrote the songs for Blank Project, and then sent the vocals – with nothing else at all – to London-based sort-of-jazz duo (and Four Tet collaborators) Rocketnumbernine (synthesizers and drums), who wrote the music around it. Four Tet, under his actual moniker Kieran Hebden, ‘produced’ the album, which seems to have caused some discombobulation; because Kieran is best known under his Four Tet guise for making jazz-inflected dance music, people seem to have assumed that his ‘production’ role here is equivalent to, say, Timbaland ‘producing’ a Missy Elliott album, i.e. that he built the tracks up entirely himself and Neneh just sang over the top. (Not, from what I understand, that this is how Timbaland and Missy work together anyway; I gather they’re far more collaborative than that.) The fact that Neneh comes from a soul / hip-hop / dance background (never mind the jazz and new wave and postpunk background she also has with, say, Rip Rig And Panic) is another signifier that people will make shorthand mental assumptions from; because any time a black woman and a white man work together on a musical project it absolutely must be the case that the white man has all the agency, according to rockist narrative.
Hebden has been eager to explain via Twitter that this is not actually the case at all, and that he pretty much just pressed ‘record’ in the studio. Anyone who’s heard his production work with other people, such as James Yorkston or Omar Souleyman, will realise that Hebden’s actually a pretty transparent presence at the controls. And, y’know, he produces under his own name, rather than as Four Tet, which seems to be a specific and distinct creative outlet, so I assume he sees them as different jobs, rather than producing other people as a chance to drizzle ‘Four Tet magic’ over someone else’s songs (though that might be interesting too). There are, of course, all sorts of questions I could go into about ‘what is record production?’ and the difference between engineering, producing, mixing, and so on and so forth, which I find fascinating, but I’ll spare you.
Anyway, Blank Project (the name essentially a working title from what the project was called in whatever software they used to record it) is fabulous; it consists entirely of vocals, drums, and synthesizers, and has a really light, minimal, almost improvisational feel that I really love. Rocketnumbernine are ostensibly a jazz duo, in some ways, and given Hebden and Cherry’s involvement and love of jazz this sense of spontaneity makes perfect sense, even on an ostensibly ‘pop’ record. The sound is wonderfully open and rich, the drums and synthesizers each allowed acres of space for their textures to shine through, and there are some great hooks scattered across all the songs. The whole thing is amazingly rewarding to listen to; the lyrics are darker than you might think at first listen, with several songs dealing quite bluntly with depression, and whilst Neneh sometimes relies on borderline cliché phrases, that fits the aesthetic perfectly. A brilliant record, however you look at it.
Rob listened: There was spirited and, from my end, relatively uninformed debate about this record as it played. I got quite animated without any sharp points I was able to articulate. Nothing new there. However I’d clearly missed the part of Nick’s introduction which actually, now I read it in his write up, nails precisely my problem with this album.
I’ve listened to ‘Blank Project’ quite a few times over the last couple of weeks. It’s been recommended from several different angles, including Nick who rated it the pick of a week which also included new records by Wild Beasts, St Vincent and The Notwist. I like a lot of it, specifically the gripping underpinning from Rocketnumbernine which seems rich both in detail and feeling. But there’s something I don’t like about it. As the others will attest, I know what it is but I haven’t been able to put my finger on why it doesn;t work for me. Put bluntly, it’s Neneh Cherry. I think she’s a fine artist who gets more and more interesting with each passing project. The problem here is that I don’t think her voice works on this record. Which is an arsehole’s thing to say, because it’s her fricking record.
I tried in vain to explain that there seemed to be a gap between her singing and the rest of the music. The others either couldn’t hear that, or didn’t think see it as a problem. I tried to postulate that her voice was neither good enough or bad enough to be interesting enough to match what was happening elsewhere. The others disagreed. I attempted, briefly, to point out parts of the record where the vocals just sound like they are straining, unable to get out of a middle range and into the places the songs need them to go. Who cares, they said? Normally I would agree.
However, reading Nick’s write-up and recalling his introduction on the night, I see the problem put clearly. A detail I’d missed. This record truly does sound as if the vocals were recorded in complete isolation and then mailed off for someone else to make music for. For me, there’s just a big disconnect. The music would be better with different vocals and the vocals would be better against different music. Which sounds stupid too, as normally a sense of disconnection, of poor fit, of wrongness, would only add to my enjoyment. Not in the case of this record, which I’ve listened to again this evening, for about the 7th or 8th time, and continue to enjoy. Apart from this one thing…
Graham listened: It didn’t get quite as much to me as it did to Rob, but I was also aware of some kind of distance between the music and the vocals on this album. I found the instrumentation, rhythms etc really engaging and she sounds dandy as a vocalist, but something didn’t quite fit. It sounded fantastic on Nick speakers but maybe that exposed the degree of separation that Rob better identified and Nick has given us an insight into. Probably would just sound more joined up in the car or less capable hi-fi and could move on to just enjoying the listen.
Tom listened: My relationship with Neneh Cherry never got off first base – obviously I know Buffalo Stance but beyond that I am pretty much unaware of her recorded output and have certainly never listened to one of her albums before.
I liked it…I didn’t have the same problem with it that Rob (and to a lesser extent Graham) had and thought that both elements of the music sounded really good, fresh and sharp; it kept reminding me of the more soulful stuff on Bomb The Bass’s mid 90s album, Clear, but with more dynamism and greater emotional heft vocals-wise. However, there was something about the clinical nature of the music that slightly put me off…I prefer things to be a little scuzzed up and messy around the edges and Blank Project seemed to be almost too well produced for my tastes.