Nikki NackTune-Yards -- aka New England vocalist Merrill Garbus and partner in bass-playing crime Nate Brenner -- have allowed some major pop producers, namely John Hill and Malay, access to their already established and almost aggressively individual sound. Concerns of a disaster in the making may ring out; their first album unbelievably lo-fi and the second self- produced -- how would makers of albeit alternative but identifiable r’n’b pop affect the truly eccentric and self-sufficient band’s identity? Well, not as you much as you may imagine or possibly fear. There are changes of course as one would expect and also hope from any artist that has been producing music in excess of five years, but these are subtle and even, on occasion, welcome amendments made to the Tune-Yards manifesto.

2011’s “Whokill” was an astonishing force of nature; it blew everyone and everything that stood in its path away but left Merrill Garbus drained and creatively arid. “Nikki Nack”’s opening lyrics tell of Garbus’ frustrations and the encouragement given to her by a stranger based only on her casual, overheard, singing:

‘You tried to tell me that I had a right to sing

Just like a bird has to fly

And I really wanted to believe him because he seemed

Like a really nice guy

But I trip on the truth when I walk that wire

When you wear a mask, always sound like a liar

I tried to tell him all the reasons that I had never to sing again

And he replied ‘You’d better find a new way’

Garbus’ wide eyed, exclaiming vocals -- certainly soulful and often astoundingly powerful -- sound pretty much the same on “Find a New Way” as they always did. The change then comes mainly from the songs themselves and Tune-Yards development as writers. Garbus has spoken about her love of sticky, ear worm- songs that attack the brain, embedded forever. One of the objectives she had for this album was to figure out how to write such hooks and incorporate them without compromise of creativity and individuality. Maybe this was the reason for recruiting the producers of, amongst others, Pink, Shakira, Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera; John Hill and Malay are music specialists who understand how to navigate an artist towards the potential of a great melody. Along with Brenner, the band has again self-written the entire record and this objective of creating catchiness has, on the whole, been met, with many satisfying examples.

The first half on “Nikki Nack” is more convoluted stylistically than the second and also has a lower hit rate. “Water Fountain”, the album’s first single, squashes all of Tune-Yards characteristics and tics into one song. It’s a very tight squeeze; playground skipping rhymes, yelps and ‘yee- ha’s!’, clanging and clattering percussion, exhibitionist vocals and lyrics about a crumbling and under-funded neighbourhoods and a video that references Peewee Herman’s “Play House”. Ostentatious, wacky and be-jewelled, it’s not subtle and, after the initial and undeniable rush has worn off, it’s not enduring either. “Look Around” and “Time of Dark”, both slower tracks, feel longer than their playing time and “Real Thing”, which starts off brilliantly with staccato thrown verses circa “Writing on the Wall” era Destiny’s Child, ends in a tangle of voices and sonic muddle.

Hey Life” chronicles an existence led too fast accompanied by anxiety and a pressure to cram as much as possible into every waking second; its drumming, synth prods and speed singing all add to the heightened feeling of panic with Merrill central to the ensuing chaos. It’s a minor track in some ways but one that is nonetheless thrilling and manages to avoid any cartoonish inclinations on a track where this could have been an easy temptation.

The strongest section of the album begins with “Stop that Man” which introduces a trio of songs where evidence of growth in song-writing and an ability to apply a more contained but ultimately more rewarding approach is clearly apparent. One of the continued aims of Tune-Yards has been to comment on social and left-leaning political issues with lyrics that are set against predominantly upbeat and dense dance rhythms and beats that imply a celebratory mood. Casual racism, gentrification and sexual harassment are all central themes here and “Stop that Man” questions racial assumptions based on media statistics and news reports and also personal experiences. The song succeeds mainly though by being part angular, glitchy electro clash experiment (it turns inexplicably and temporarily into Blue Monday/ Bobby O for forty-five seconds mid-song) and part glorious, singalong pop song. So if Garbus’ intention was to create a song serious in intention that you’ll also sing and dance along to, she has also again succeeded.

Left Behind” and the downbeat but not depressing, smoothly r’n’b “Wait for a Minute”, probably the album’s best tune and performance, complete the trio and these moments are some of the finest in Tune-Yards discography to date. There is nothing that rivals the unruly, audacious and already ground -breaking “Gangsta”’ for example, here; the Tune-Yards of “Nikki Nack” are indeed more mannered but also more intricate with one beady eye placed on fine detail and songs that reveal themselves more slowly and reward generously over time. Claims of cultural appropriation, for they have been made, are surely overblown and only on the multi harmonies of the lullaby-like “Rocking Chair”, short and little too on the nose, does the intention grate. Other influences can also be heard, Laurie Anderson, Cyndi Lauper, Missy Elliott and Timbaland, Santigold, Big Boi, MIA and Neneh Cherry in particular all register at certain points but never once could you mistake Tune –Yards for anyone else. “Nikki Nack” may not shout its intentions as loudly as before but its power is found elsewhere, you’ll find yourself madly singing its merits -- probably unaware and almost certainly with glee.

There are two albums which were reviewed on MusicRiot on the Top 40 Independent Album chart last week, Neneh Cherry’s “Blank Project” and Stone Foundation’s “To Find the Spirit”.  These albums have a few things in common; they’re both fourth studio albums, they both have guest artists, both were rated as 4* by MusicRiot writers and both feature guest performers and the similarity pretty much ends there.  Except that, as Neil Sheasby, bass player and songwriter with Stone Foundation pointed out a few days ago, both albums were in the 30-to-40 section of the Independent Album chart, “To Find the Spirit” at 33, “Blank Project” at 38.

It isn’t a straightforward comparison; Neneh Cherry’s album peaked in the top ten a fortnight earlier while “To Find the Spirit” has just entered the chart in its first week.  The interesting story here is the journey that each of these albums made to reach those chart positions.  This isn’t a criticism of Neneh Cherry; it’s an achievement to get any kind of significant album sales at a time when the value of music has been so degraded by piracy and the industry has no time or money for artist development.  Most of the bands I’ve spoken to recently have only the most tangential contact with the traditional music industry, usually at the distribution end of the chain.

Neneh Cherry was operating on a fairly tight budget with “Blank Project”; it was recorded and mixed in five days (featuring guest appearances from Robyn and RocketNumberNine) by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, generating a certain level of interest in the project outside Neneh Cherry’s own fanbase, which is still reasonably healthy after a long time out of the spotlight.  In the weeks leading up to the release there was a significant amount of interest from the trade press and even the inkies in the UK; the physical release was in vinyl and bonus CD form with the CD containing the almost obligatory remixes.  So, signs of a marketing budget there.  Maybe not a huge budget, but enough to get the album into the mainstream media.

Stone Foundation have been doing their thing for about ten years, building up a local, then national, then international following; putting in the hard graft, basically.  The band has played as Stone Foundation and has also backed touring soul singers such as Nolan Porter and Joe Harris, building a reputation and a hugely loyal fanbase.  There’s no complicated organisation in place here; no manager or entourage; just seven very gifted and committed musicians (plus long-time production collaborator, Andy Codling) with a total belief in what they do.

“To Find the Spirit” has a few guest appearances too.  Nolan Porter, Carleen Anderson, Pete Williams from Dexys and even Paolo Hewitt are all there.  The album even has a remix; the Dennis Bovell dub of “Don’t Let the Rain”, which is available on all formats.  The promotion campaign was minimal, focussing on social media and a support slot on The Selecter’s anniversary tour, but still the album managed to break into the official Independent Album Top 40.

It would be easy to moan about how much better it was in the good old days when artists got huge advances and only toured in support of an album, but that model just doesn’t apply any more.  Most artists now only make money by touring, and a lot of that income is from merchandising.  Take a step away from singles charts and there are thousands of talented and hard-working musicians taking control of the recording, marketing and distribution processes (physical and electronic) to get their own material out into the marketplace with very little help from the mainstream media.  The MusicRiot writers try to cover as many artists as we can who are working in this way (as do thousands of other websites) but it’s only effective if our readers actually do something about it.  It’s so easy to try before you buy these days that any music lover should be able find new artists doing something interesting and appealing if they make the effort.  It’s all going on out there but, despite 6 Music’s slightly patronising campaign, it won’t come to you automatically; you have to make the effort to go out and find it.

So I say thank you to Stone Foundation and the other artists and labels we’ve featured recently; The Brothers Groove, Roscoe Levee, Bandhouse Records, Drumfire Records, Ags Connolly, Phil  Burdett, Dean Owens, Jo Hook and Geoffrey Richardson, Noel Cowley, Pete Kennedy, Aynsley Lister, Vera Lynch and the Billy Walton Band.  All of these artists are making their own wonderful live and recorded music while doing whatever else it takes to allow them to keep on making music.

Now go out and support them.

Blank ProjectI have a confession. It would be unreasonable and creatively and artistically crippling for her, but I want Neneh Cherry to make another “Buffalo Stance” and one more “Manchild” whilst she’s at it. These two songs, twenty five years old and counting, and her most famous along with Youssou N’Dour’s “Seven Seconds”, are as fantastic examples of perfect r’n’b, hip-hop pop as you will ever hear. Weird, joyous, melancholic and just gloriously sing-along tracks they instantly established Cherry as an artist that represented the period so completely that she has never been forgotten and as a female performer who embodied supreme self- possession and control over her image and her music. But therein of course lies a real truth in my confession and that it is built on nostalgia, sentimentality probably, and an opportunity to recapture something that probably can’t be and shouldn’t be. And Neneh Cherry has never been an artist to wallow or revisit, not for she the desperate and depressing revival tours and reality TV features so I wonder, when will my one pop wish ever come true?

2012’s “The Cherry Thing” was the last full length album to feature Cherry’s vocals on every track. It was a relatively specialist jazz album, wild and uninhibited but a sideline nonetheless. This, only her fourth album proper, has some of the residue of the itchy, structure-punishing, live feel of that last outing but where that album felt like an ensemble piece, which is what it was, this is all her; front, back and centre. “Blank Project”, a misleading title given its sharp focus, is very much about Neneh Cherry and her life now and the roles that she plays out, old and new. To get back to my confessional wish, there is not another “Buffalo Stance” here; of course there isn’t. There is however, amongst the avant-garde noises and sometimes bare sound stages, some bold and invigorating pop song structures. Surprisingly they are not to be found in the ponderous and strangely characterless duet with Cherry’s super groupie and number one fan Robyn on “Out of the Black” but in a trio of songs that appear in the album’s first half.

Following the reflective and protective “Across The Water”, a gentle and partly-rapped opener set to African percussion and stark patted drums, the title track “Blank Project” establishes Kieran (aka Four Tet) Heden’s production (he’s responsible for the whole album) style and sonic choices. Live drums, drum machines, guitars, pinging jangling ear-flinching percussion and a low frequency, vibrating and rubbery electronic bass that shares equal billing with only Cherry herself for persistence and aggravated attitude.  Along with “Blank Project”, “Naked” and “Weightless” detail addictive/compulsive relationships, making peace with a world and culture that resists being grounded in anything other than the present and feelings of being overwhelmed by the pressure to carry on ‘as normal’.

‘Strip me naked and put me down right

Strips me naked, my wings need to blast off

Life is going faster, like a bus it runs me over

No kind of beacon, fill me up and make me whole now’

All of these songs have a rambunctious punk energy which link in with Cherry’s earlier time with Rip, Rig and Panic but also, like her best work, they have fantastic melodies and exuberant, big choruses. “Weightless” in particular has a massive charge swinging around a chorus that lists bad dancing, over-spending, hasty decisions and a desire for some kind of spiritual balance. Any of these songs could be performed by artists that are half the age of Cherry and who represent the more interesting end of r’n’b and dance hybrids such as Angel Haze, MIA, Sky Ferreira and even Lorde, which is testament not only to the influence that Cherry has had on modern music but also her refusal to conform to perceived notions of appropriateness.

Spit Three Times”, a mid-tempo track that recalls Cherry’s dalliance with trip-hop around the mid 90’s, and, in particular the track ‘Feel It’, tackles depression but is not in itself a depressing track. Cherry’s warm and clear vocal also sounds suspicious of the superstitions that she thinks may help her dark mood at bay.

‘Monkeys on my back

Holding me down

Black dogs in the corner

Looking up at me

But you’re like an old friend or an enemy; holding me down’

Dossier”, a definite standout track, has a truly sinister build and bipolar mood but ends up revealing nothing scarier than domesticity although maybe this is Cherry’s biggest fear? The one true ballad “422” sees Cherry joining her native Swedes with a glacial, melancholic electronica reminiscent of The Knife and the closing track “Everything”, which may be overlong at nearly eight minutes, is the most experimental track here calling to mind Yoko Ono, albeit at her most subdued. All of it though hanging together beautifully with a graceful and consistent temperament.

Neneh Cherry has always been more of a commentator than a player. Her views have come from her own perspective and experiences as a woman, a woman of colour, a hip-hop star, a pop star, a parent and a reluctant participant of the music industry. To use an overused and often incorrectly-applied phrase she is what you might call authentic. “Blank Project” feels like a concentrated version of Cherry in that she is so present throughout and her strength and vulnerability heightened. It’s as if you’ve spent the morning with her sharing pots of coffee whilst trying to disentangle problems and laughing hysterically at pretty much nothing together, and she’s just left. She’s still live in your head but she’s no longer present, such is the personal nature and intensity of these songs. I won’t deny that I would love to hear her produced by Pharrell or the new Beyonce whizz kid Boots just to hear what they would come up with; I think it would be amazing. But that’s not to belittle or underestimate the quality of this record. Neneh Cherry is back and her art and soul informs this project, blank only for you to fill the role of listener and to share the very human experiences expressed honestly, courageously, and often thrillingly throughout.

Tricky’s debut album “Maxinquaye” came out in 1995 and is now, some eighteen years later, regarded as not only his best work, but also one of the most inspirational and best examples of the trip-hop genre which first appeared in the early nineties.  The pressure for him to repeat the success and the sounds contained on “Maxinquaye” seem to have been so great that Tricky has actually stated that this, his tenth album, (I know, it shocked me too) is a return to the essence of his debut and also of him as an artist. This doesn’t sound like the successor to “Maxinquaye” in that an updated version would have to be terrifyingly experimental and claustrophobic, sticky and dark, but “False Idols” is soulful, mature even and the predominant feminine psyche (something which Tricky has always been very much in touch with in both his music and the images that have accompanied it) is represented and presented as vulnerable and maybe damaged but wilful and intact.

This is a fifteen song album and only “Passion of the Christ” features Tricky on his own with no female support and probably sounds exactly as you might imagine it would. There are three female vocalists featured here and the one male guest is the lead singer of The Antlers singing a version of one their own songs. The women here sound and sing like Martina Topley-Bird, not featured here, who performed vocals on Tricky’s first four albums and is rightly considered his ultimate collaborator and muse. “Maxinquaye” was a sample heavy album and Tricky has demonstrated a continued greed for bizarre cover versions (the “Wonder Woman” theme, “Slow” by Kylie, “The Love Cats” and “Happy Talk” amongst others all appear on previous albums) which hasn’t diminished here but these are his most successful interpretations to date.

Somebody’s Sins”, which is a cover of Patti Smith’s interpretation of Van Morrison’s “Gloria”, is beautifully economical; just Francesca Belmonte’s small but confrontational voice, a bassline and the sound of a muted bee buzzing in a jar and, at barely three minutes long, it’s an impressive opening track. “Valentine” sees Tricky duetting with Chet Baker’s “Funny Valentine”, “Hey Love” uses a two note, instantly recognisable sample from Japan’s “Ghosts” and “Does It” is actually a pretty loyal, albeit more minimal, cover version of the brilliantly threatening “Love  Is A Chain Store” by The Ropes. Along with the swooping Massive Attack-lite of “Nothing’s Changed” and Nneka, criminally given only one track, recalling “Raw Like Sushi” Neneh Cherry on “Nothing Matters”, this collection actually sounds like one of the more polite trip-hop releases from the late nineties. Tricky may well have wanted to avoid this but it’s something that he can’t seem to escape and in this instance, it’s not a criticism. Lyrical themes of isolation, class, betrayal and sex remain and occasionally, such as on the low-slung, stop-start funk of “Is That Your Life” where Francesca Belmonte narrates a typical dealer’s day and Tricky mumbles ‘you does your bird, you keeps your word’, it can be clumsy and clichéd and somewhat retrograde.

“False Idols” is occasionally menacing but overwhelmingly intimate, quiet and quite lovely. Admittedly there is filler here and if it were a twelve-track album then a lot of its problems would be solved, but it’s also Tricky’s most cohesive collection in a decade; “False Idols” is maybe a more revealing title than initially assumed. Tricky has made the album he wanted to and has declared that he proudly stands by every song featured.  He’s clearly a variation on the person he was almost two decades ago; not the same man but why would he be? To put him on a pedestal and expect him to recreate what’s now considered to be his masterpiece again is naive and misplaced. Tricky has moved on and this album proves that he has to ability and imagination to make material that is maybe minor, but is valid and engaging nonetheless.