Corinne Bailey Rae – The Sea (Album Review)

theseascrate42010 looks set to be a great year for soul music with many a welcome return to the scene by some established favourites.  The first couple of months alone have some significant comebacks in the offing, one of which is undoubtedly that of Corinne Bailey Rae.  The Yorkshire native’s follow-up project to her incredibly successful self-titled debut was, in any case, going to be an interesting affair even before the sad events that recently took place gave rise to the morbid fascination on which certain members of the press thrive.

There was always the question of whether lightning would strike twice for Bailey-Rae.  After all, she was somewhat of a surprise hit in the first place.  Here was the northern lass with the unorthodox soul voice that delicately tip-toed around each lyric as if it would shatter on impact. In an ageist industry that has, since the 1990s, been increasingly dominated by those who become veterans long before their 21st birthday, Rae scored her breakthrough hit comparatively late at 27. Somehow she managed to crack the UK market; one which had been hitherto indifferent towards any brown singer not doing American-style R&B.

You could even credit Bailey-Rae for the revival of soul-infused pop in British mainstream music.  The sun-kissed abandon of her first single ‘Put Your Records On’ was a harbinger for the Mark Ronson-led Versions etc bandwagon, as well as acclaimed debuts from other talented young female singer-songwriters with a fondness for soul such as Adele, Beth Rowley and Duffy.  The floodgates were then open for the likes of Paloma Faith and VV Brown to be late beneficiaries.  It might be hard to imagine now but in late 2005/early 2006, when Ms Bailey Rae first started making waves, commercial radio wasn’t as acclimatised to this sort of music as it is now.  Bailey Rae was also one of the first of the new breed to take her sound successfully across the pond – and how!  From Grammy nominations to her name being gratuitously mentioned in an episode of the hit US sitcom Scrubs, America loved Corinne.

It’s been four long years since the release of Bailey Rae’s debut album and those highest of career highs followed by the lowest of personal lows. After the untimely death of her husband Jason Rae, some wondered if she would -or could -return to music at all.  For those still in any doubt ‘I’d Do It All Again’ the first single from The Sea proves that she is here to stay – as indeed does the album as a whole.

Corinne Bailey Rae “I’d Do It All Again”

The Sea is the eclectic fair we’ve come to anticipate from Bailey Rae with aspects of Northern soul, melodic rock and out-and-out funk evident throughout the album. Rae is blessed enough to be one of those artists who manage to bring all their musical influences into play without sounding gimmicky.  Yet if The Sea does have a prevalent theme, sonically at least, it is a vintage one – or should I say more specifically – the 1970s.  There are songs that could have easily been written for and recorded by the likes of The Carpenters (the title track comes to mind), Donny Hathaway (‘I Would Like To Call It Beauty’) and early Steely Dan (‘The Blackest Lily’).  ‘Are You Here?’ has reflections of Hendrix’ ‘Foxy Lady’.  ‘Closer’, the album’s piece de resistance with its offensively tantalising groove and seductive bass line, is reminiscent of EWF taking a break from disco to concentrate on funk.  Tracks like these and the wonderful, Philadelphia soul-esque ‘Feels Like the First Time’ prove how much Rae’s music has come of age.

Much more fuss should be made about Bailey Rae’s amazing musicality – and perhaps that’s something else that makes her mainstream success a bit of a surprise.  Unlike some of her commercial contemporaries there’s nothing in Rae’s music to suggest the kind of cynicism that lurks behind the creative process of hits today.   Everything about their structure and arrangements indicate that these songs are an extension of Corinne herself; she is a muso through and through.  It would not surprise me if under microscopic examination you would find her very cells are crochet-shaped.

Admittedly The Sea is a darker affair than Rae’s summery debut.  There are not as many radio-friendly or instantly accessible tracks for instance.  There’s something grittier about the arrangements too; a stronger presence of rock guitar riffs, strident horns, hectic string sections and plaintive organ solos wailing in the background.  Yet The Sea is not the maudlin affair one might expect – or rather some music journalists have exaggerated – it to be.  For example, the indie number ‘Paris Nights/New York Mornings’ is a bon vivant ode to spontaneous romantic getaways.  Even if Bailey-Rae is slightly more introspective on this project (as on ‘Love Is On Its Way’ and ‘Paper Dolls’) it is not a massive departure from the norm – she never has been one for shallow, throwaway lyrics anyway.

It should be no shock for those who appreciated Rae’s magic from the outset that her sophomore project showcases her natural progression as an artist.  No doubt her recent heartache has had its impact on the overall outcome but it would be unfair to attribute all of The Sea’s qualities to this alone.  That is why it irritates no end to hear Corinne’s former (usually male) detractors who once dismissed her music as samey and lightweight, now claim she has a newly-acquired ‘edge’ or credibility; supposedly as a result of being recently widowed.  Alas, welcome to the twisted world of the schadenfreude-driven British press.

Bailey-Rae’s personal life aside, The Sea is a very impressive follow-up album by one of the UK’s most sophisticated and consistent singer-songwriters of recent years; I dare say it was always going to be. So much more the pity then, that it took her experiencing a tragedy for some to realise this.

–Tola Ositelu

The Sea is out on February 1st, 2010 via EMI in the UK (January 26th in the US).

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