blished on 13thfloor.co.nz
On her 3rd studio effort Corinne Bailey Rae goes all out recruiting Nu-soul and jazz artists Esperanza Spalding, Moses Sumney and flavour of the month R&B group KING to make an expansive, lush album with erratic mood-swings and a concentration of phat, spacious grooves. It’s all a long way from her fluffy debut single Put Your Records On, with a frivolous, carefree video of friends through an idyllic countryside, not a care in the world. Three Grammy nominations and three Brit awards later, and debut sales exceeding four million dollars, she was set up to go far.
But then in 2008, Rae’s husband, Jason, died following a drug and alcohol overdose and Rae, understandably, went into a deep, dark place. Her resulting result follow-up The Sea was a sullen, edgy affair reflecting her own feelings of loss and despair. But also, it was not that artistically strong or valuable. The critics slated it and showed little understanding of where she was at or what was really going on. The English press, in particular, paid her the worst compliments. Then they ignored her.
That was six years ago. And after another smaller hiatus, a few rare appearances and a couple of small collaborations where are we? Rae’s ‘return’ finds her coming back into the spotlight with luscious new sounds and a vibrant, colourful vibe that completely blinds anything that she’s done in the past. This record, The Heart Speaks in Whispers, was partially recorded in the glaring sunshine of Los Angeles where Rae took great inspiration from the city’s its Black Bohemian scene. Peeps like Thundercat, J Davey, Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington and, of course, Kendrick Lamar were feeling her creativity. You can hear that on Been to the Moon, Green Aphrodisiac, Horse Print Dress, and especially on the gentle pop-hybrid Taken by Dreams. But whilst all Boho, they’re not grungy or rough. The California sheen across every one of them sparkles brightly in the production. Members of KING (Paris and Amber Strother) collaborate on parts of this album and are best heard on Tell Me, a momentous pop-funk-jam that totally eclipses their own sounds, as if it was almost too big for the own LP’s. The highly underrated Esperanza Spalding provides some very delicious BV’s on Green Aphrodisiac and Vocalist Moses Sumney adds some runny honey vocals to the aptly named. Caramel. This one, in particular reminds me of early Erykah Badu ballads – dark chocolate smooth and infinitely deep. What’s extra cool is the deft Charlie Parker influenced book-endings on Been to the Moon, with subtle horns and keys referencing back some of his great arrangements like Night in Tunisia. This is just of the many little points in the album where the ‘crew’ show their influence. The keen slap bass that appears regularly throughout is another small welcome flourish. Random samples and ‘producer blips and squawks’ remind us that this is definitely a studio production. Rae might have her name on the cover but it’s pretty clear that it is not a solo effort. Her collaborators sit large on the bill this time round. And unlike the dark gloomy album The Sea, this new record offers a broader emotional range, and Rae seems at peace with her life and newfound direction. Her lyrics appear to be more stream of consciousness, or perhaps dirty jottings as she sings of heady dreams, of walking through the darkness in search of light and happiness. Given what’s gone before her, this is a positive, logical path to take. The best example of that is Hey, I Won’t Break Your Heart, a ballad about summertime romance, cautiously optimistic and perhaps just a small indication that Rae’s ready to get back off the shelf and back into the dating game. So on the surface this is a more commercially viable work, but it’ also a more intriguing listen and worthy of a few replays. There’s both catharsis of the past and inspiration for the here and now. While the past struggles are not directly mentioned they are there behind the lyrics, the music and the tone. So by taking the opposite direction to her previous album she draws attention to what’s missing and what she’s moved away from. It’s all about striking through, living for the future, shedding the old doom-skins and growing again. For that alone there’s reason to try this one out.