Corinne Bailey Rae - The Sea

Corinne Bailey Rae
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When Corinne Bailey Rae crossed the Atlantic in 2006 following one of the last blitzkreig major label promotions, she arrived to a very welcoming US audience.  Already a hit in the UK for her languid pop/folk sound, she was the perfect new star for 20- and 30-something year old women silently protesting that they were too young or too urban to be into Norah Jones.  And with her bouncy first single, "Put Your Records On," she gave her audience an easy-to-swallow, ersatz visit back to the pop music of their teen years. It and the accompanying album were smashes, with the latter staying in the top twenty for nearly a year.

When Corinne Bailey Rae crossed the Atlantic in 2006 following one of the last blitzkreig major label promotions, she arrived to a very welcoming US audience.  Already a hit in the UK for her languid pop/folk sound, she was the perfect new star for 20- and 30-something year old women silently protesting that they were too young or too urban to be into Norah Jones.  And with her bouncy first single, "Put Your Records On," she gave her audience an easy-to-swallow, ersatz visit back to the pop music of their teen years. It and the accompanying album were smashes, with the latter staying in the top twenty for nearly a year.

But while her self titled debut album certainly hit its commercial mark, once all the hype was stripped away it was clear that the disc -- though it had its moments -- was musically rather lightweight, with one wispy acoustic ballad blurring into another.  So the big question was whether Rae could use her auspicous entrance as the stepping stone to something bigger and more ambitious, or whether she would go all Jack Johnson and ride her mellow folkie sounds for the next decade, pandering to an increasingly niche middle-aged female audience. 

Sadly, tragedy struck in 2008 and changed Rae's world and musical outlook. The sudden death of her husband, Jason Rae (believed to be an accidental drug overdose), turned her life upside down and shaped her in-process sophomore album, the newly released The Sea.

Jason Rae's shadow is all over the disc lyrically, from the opening track, "Are You Still Here?", to the haunting closing title track: "The sea, the majestic sea, breaks everything, crushes everything, cleans everything, takes everything from me." The listener literally aches for Rae's loss, even when the lyrics are too personal or opaque to fully understand.  But while The Sea spends substantial time on the subjects of love and loss, Rae does not allow it to wallow in gloominess for too long.    After starting with a handful of the kind of acoustic snoozers that bogged down her debut, she kicks into a new gear on "The Blackest Lily," a strong, bass-heavy rocker, and follows it with the uncharacteristically sexy, engaging R&B number, "Closer" (arguably the album's high point). Rae picks up the pace again later with "Paris Nights/New York Mornings," a laconic Steely Dan cum Doobie Brothers upbeat track, and the organ-drenched 60s-style rock song, "Paper Dolls."  The change of pace lifts the album when it needs it and provides a necessary contrast to Rae's more lugubrious slow numbers.  And even though she is not a classic soul or pop vocalist, on these cuts she shows she is an effective song stylist, able to move beyond the Janis Ian-like, overwrought earnestness that threatened to hijack her first disc.

I don't know if there is a radio hit on The Sea, but those who enjoyed Corinne Bailey Rae's debut album will find a lot more to like this time around -- The Sea is, quite simply, a huge step forward.  Rae likely received too much hype when she first broke out four years ago, but on this musically superior album she shows the kind of artistic growth and increased risk-taking that convinces me she is an singer/songwriter who hasn't yet peaked, and makes me excited to hear where she can yet go.   Recommended.

By Chris Rizik

 
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