Thursday, March 04, 2010

Caught In The Waves

Corinne Bailey Rae - The Sea

The fact that I'm sitting down to write a review of a Corinne Bailey Rae album comes as something of a surprise to me. I should state for the record that I don't have any particular axe to grind with Ms. Rae, it's simply that her debut was far too light and frothy a concoction to really have registered with me, although her Jools Holland performances certainly showed she had vocal talents. Her follow up album 'The Sea' is a totally different story.

It would be very tempting to write about the sad and untimely death of Bailey Rae's partner Jason Rae and how it has informed this album. Whilst it is a record touched by grief and loss, much of the writing had been done before the event, and certain songs have probably been made more poignant by the tragedy. There can be no doubt that this must have affected Bailey Rae tremendously - perhaps some of the pain was poured into completing this surprisingly powerful, dramatic and engaging album. But this is speculation - what seems more important from the context of Bailey Rae's developing career is that she seems to have been left free to make precisely the album she wanted to make. So many different styles inform this liberated, free flowing music. There are hints at Bailey Rae's love of jazz (particularly Billie Holliday records), but also material drawn from the folk world, and even from indie rock. The seductive opener 'Are You Here?' begins with an electric guitar riff that could have been drawn from a PJ Harvey record. Indeed, it comes as something of a surprise to hear Bailey Rae's soft, playful vocal delivery over it.

This sophisticated, superbly executed music is quite some way from the coffee table blandness with which Bailey Rae has been, perhaps unfairly, associated. It's a record that suggests that of all the recent heavily hyped, BBC sound-of-the-year approved female solo artists, Bailey Rae may well turn out to be the one with long term artistic potential. Artists that spring to mind when listening to 'The Sea' include Joni Mitchell, John Martyn and Terry Callier - the kind of solo artists that blurred genre boundaries with effortless, intoxicating ease.

Even the single 'I'd Do It All Again', itself a powerfully linear, deeply expressed and passionate song, gives little indication of the quality of the writing and the ensemble performances on 'The Sea'. The music is sensitively delivered and thoughtfully textured. A song like 'Feels Like The First Time', which initially threatens to be generic summery funk-lite unfolds to reveal a slightly exotic, menacing chorus with vaguely threatening string lines.

More surprising are the upbeat, sultry and insistent pieces such as 'The Blackest Lily'. With Hammond organ and spiky electric guitar, the song has a slightly retro vibe, but everything about the delivery is so righteous and confident that it ends up being thoroughly irresistible. Perhaps the breezy pop of 'Paris Nights/New York Mornings' is slightly out of place on an otherwise intense and rapturous set of songs, but the sheer panache of the band performances make it seem necessary.

Perhaps the album's greatest strengths lie in its lush, rhapsodic ballads, which are emotional without becoming histrionic. Bailey Rae has a control and delicacy that suggests turmoil in the most unforced and convincing of ways. 'I Would Like To Call It Beauty' is particularly beautiful - sensual and gentle but compelling from start to finish, whilst 'Love's On Its Way' gradually builds into something somehow both overwhelming and underplayed. The closing title track is aptly named - the sensation of listening to it is akin to being washed with waves of water. It feels like writing it may have been a cathartic, purgatorial experience.

There will always be some people for whom Bailey Rae is just not edgy enough a personality. Yet these people will miss out by unfairly ignoring this excellent album. Whilst her soft, sometimes childlike vocals could sit very comfortably in lightweight presentation, the contexts Bailey Rae has chosen here are a good deal more mature and adventurous. A great deal of attention has been paid to the detail of the arrangements and the sounds of particular instruments and to the overall mood. 'The Sea' is an elemental triumph.

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