Neneh Cherry: The Versions review – all-star covers album can’t touch a true original

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.

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.”

Related: ‘The canon is so heavy with the male genius’: Neneh Cherry and Robyn on changing the face of pop

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.