IN THE VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM’S recent blockbuster “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990,” there was a room where fragments of pop videos flashed on overhead screens and small eye-level monitors. The show’s effect was mostly deflationaryvarious poses of art-historical irony, a wan sifting through the ruins. In this room, though, there were sparks of the New, of what, temporality aside, was clearly modernism, in the sense of the London modernists (or mods) of the 1960sa love for machine-made surface and technology-aided drama, with no hint of melancholia or antiutopian condescension. This united such seemingly disparate videos as Kraftwerk’s “The Robots,” Devo’s “Whip It,” and Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance.”
Tim Simenon’s techno-infused production of Cherry’s 1988 single, with its bright, harsh synth riffs, was mirrored by the computer-generated imagery in the video, where the singer swaggers in front of an abstract background of computer static and fuzz. But what was special here was seeingalbeit at a remove, reproduced in the museum and slotted into the less interesting story of how modernist architects and then the culture at large discovered fatalistic irony and historical referencea place finding its voice, pioneering another modernism. “Buffalo Stance,” which reached number three on the Billboard charts, was one of the first moments when multiracial urban Britain managed to take black American electronic music and create something ineffably local out of it. A line could be traced from this Cockneyfied shock of the new to all the musics that bastardized and made willfully tasteless the sounds of New York and Chicago, emerging from London, Bristol, Manchester, and Sheffield over the next twenty years. The curious thing, given all this apparent gleeful Englishness, is that the singer was, in fact, SwedishCherry was born and partly raised in a commune near Hässleholm, though by 1988 she had long been resident in the UK.
Cherry’s first album in more than fifteen years, The Cherry Thing, comes out this June on Smalltown Supersound, an Oslo-based avant-garde label. It’s a series of covers, backed by the Thing, a Swedish-Norwegian jazz ensemble consisting of drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, double-bass player Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and saxophonist Mats Gustafsson. The covers are sometimes signifiers of post-punk good taste, the kind we’ve come to expect from albums of this sort. Cherry and the Thing doff their caps to the Stooges and Suicide, along with more surprising choices (MF Doom, Martina Topley-Bird) and some potentially foolhardy ones (free-jazz explorations by Ornette Coleman and the singer’s stepfather, Don Cherry). All sound as if they were recorded during a live in-studio session.
The covers album, whereby an artist shows off his or her impeccable taste and fulfills a contractual obligation, has a long and farcical history, whether the farce is deliberate (Bryan Ferry burlesquing Bob Dylan) or inadvertent (Duran Duran doing Public Enemy). It’s usually very far from the bright, futurist pop of a “Buffalo Stance.” The Cherry Thing, however, sounds manic, sweaty, with familiar songs falling apart into noise, clatter, and saxophone blare. In the process, what could be a tediously curatorial enterprise becomes something much more peculiar. It’s a regression, but not an obvious, excessively signposted one. The sound is slightly redolent of Cherry’s first group, Rip Rig + Panic, formed in 1981 by members of the Bristolian post-punk Pop Group, and probably most famous for their 1982 appearance on the anarcho-surrealist TV sitcom The Young Ones. The Cherry Thing’s move into punked-up jazz could easily be another facet of the endless post-punk revival, a hipper reference point than the gleaming Anglo-electro with which Cherry made her name. It doesn’t sound, though, like Cherry or the Thing is particularly bothered about temporality. The effect is that of a group of unusually talented middle-aged ex-punks in a room, picking a random set of songs and blasting away at them.
It’s that freedom from expectationsand the group’s carnal pugnacity, the innuendo-laden horns, and Cherry’s sleepy, carefree vocalsthat makes The Cherry Thing enjoyable. The covers are at their best the farther away they are from any memory of the original. Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” suffers in being relocated from its Fordist highway to an Oslo basement, its glittering artificiality reduced to the limited palette of “real instruments.” The more interesting moments come from the lesser-known figures. “Too Tough to Die” by Tricky’s collaborator Topley-Bird is frantic and driven; “Golden Heart” by Don Cherry himself is dreamy and touching. Saxophonist Gustafsson’s own “Sudden Movement” is a standout, an alternately drifting and urgent piece that is the exploratory hinge of this short, breathless album.
The quarter-century gap between the fearless, mechanized pop modernism of “Buffalo Stance” and the organic good taste of The Cherry Thing can only be understood as a step backward, indicative of a broader shift. Pop experimentation is replaced by “experimental” familiarity, the new and brash by curatorial fidelity. The key thing about “Buffalo Stance” was its bastardization of its sources (hip-hop, techno), its localization of the resulting admixture in a placeand then its creation of a sound that could come only from that place. For all the song’s mocking of po-faced B-boy stances, the lack of ironic distance in “Buffalo Stance” was as obvious as its refusal of backward glances. The Cherry Thing could have been made anywhere, at any time since the mid-1960s. In that, it’s more postmodernist than anything Cherry was doing in 1988.
Owen Hatherley is a writer based in London and the author of three books on architecture.