Sometimes you wish they’d just shut up, all those MTV pop divas who go out of their way to show the populace how many notes they can hit in the course of a song. Perhaps they should take a cue from Neneh Cherry, who understands the meaning of simmer. On her second album, Homebrew, Cherry’s voice easily glides from supple notes to seamless rapping, from sighs of inner turmoil to don’t-mess-with-me feistiness. Even more important, unlike everyone from Mariah Carey to En Vogue, Cherry has a forthright style that talks to you, not at you.
Then again, Cherry isn’t a standard-issue diva; a former member of British punk bands and the stepdaughter of jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, she slammed into the pop planet in 1989 with a debut, Raw Like Sushi, that sold 2 million copies worldwide. Sushi and its hit, the unstoppable ”Buffalo Stance,” were all brash attitude wedded to dance and hip-hop beats. Judging from Homebrew, Cherry’s last three years (spent largely with her daughters and coproducer, Cameron McVey, a.k.a. Booga Bear) seem to have left their mark. Steeped more in misty synthesizers and percolating-coffee rhythms, Homebrew marks the dawn of a new species: It’s a new-jack version of a singer-songwriter album — in this case, by an honest-to-God bohemian spirit with jazz-bo and hip-hop tendencies.
True to its title, Homebrew has a charming low-rent, home-studio feel; the music sounds as spare as a demo tape. Cherry still has her way with a hook; the first single, ”Money Love,” melds a vacuum-packed guitar riff with hip-hop percussion more convincingly than even Michael Jackson’s terrific ”Black or White.” More often, though, she and her cohorts aim for subtler arrangements. On the ballads, like the amazingly sensual ”Move With Me,” Cherry is often backed by little more than airy keyboards and percussion — to simple, and sumptuous, effect.
That approach is bound to disappoint fans of Raw Like Sushi’s dance grooves. There’s no denying the sharp bump-and-grind of tracks like ”Buddy X,” but none of them are cutting-edge dance numbers either, and Cherry’s rap side is downplayed. Cherry and company seem to want something else. Sprinkling the music with elements like lounge-piano fills, they’ve created pop with the unconstrained, semi-improvisational feel of jazz. That looseness can sometimes extend to the lyrics: Too often, Cherry sounds as if she’s making up the words as she goes along. ”Peace in Mind” oddly circles its theme of inner tranquillity versus world turmoil, and the ”cash corrupts” theme of ”Money Love” is just plain tired.
Yet in the end, what makes Homebrew a logical sequel to Raw Like Sushi is its heightened sense of confidence. The narrators of Cherry’s songs may be down and out, like the ghetto dweller refusing to give in to the ravages around her in ”I Ain’t Gone Under Yet,” and the confused, jealous unrequited lover of ”Twisted.” But they have self-worth and self-sufficiency up the wazoo, and they know that’s what it will take to get them through the long haul. In its own low-key ways, Homebrew may be the most hopeful pop of the year. B+