AT THE RISK of being labeled a typical white middle-class, middle-aged sexist pig, I have to own up to something that’s almost never discussed in the context of record reviewing: I find Corinne Bailey Rae impossibly attractive. Both her looks and her honeyed voice bring out the beast within. This makes the task of writing a balanced assessment incredibly difficult, and it’s not helped by the fact that there’s an inherent sensuality built-in to this type of music that feeds right back to the leggy cover imagery which, let’s face it, doesn’t exactly discourage objectification.
Brash (Beyonce), brassy (Adele) and trashy (Miley) aesthetics rule at this moment in time, and those characteristics might be seen as empowering to some, but I’ll go for sweet and subtle every time, and subtlety is right there in the title of Corinne Bailey Rae’s latest, The Heart Speaks In Whispers. Doesn’t that say it all? There’s none of that “shake your ass” stuff here, Rae’s whole world is in the tiny vocal inflections that make a world of difference if you’re attuned to them. While she was launched back in 2004 with comparisons to Billie Holiday – and she certainly had something of Holiday’s exquisite phrasing – she’s actually closer to the achingly sweet (and late lamented) Minnie Riperton of ‘Loving You’ fame. There’s that same sense of strength in sensitivity and kindness, natural intimacy and warmth, and here, the comparisons are strengthened by her music taking on much more of a ‘70s soul/disco hue.
Rae’s problem however, is two-fold. First, she’s an English singer-songwriter without the obscene, inexplicable pulling power of Adele, with music that’s somehow too polite and well crafted for the American market. Second, she’s always come across as a bit packaged. Where American icons flagrantly bamboozle with unexpected moves and release schedules (and stays in psychiatric wards), Rae’s first few albums just felt like they’d had intelligent marketing campaigns that tried to tag and identify her rather than let her art grow the kind of useful bacteria that breeds genuine vitality. It all felt a bit confined and tidy and risk-averse.
Of course, all of that is still much better than Adele-world, where a decidedly average voice and writing by committee can control the airwaves through some misplaced fat-girl identification thing. [Not that I have anything against fat girls, you understand – Mama Cass rocked, and the somewhat portly Jill Scott could also light my fire just with the sensuality of her voice and the specific lilt of it].
Speaking of Scott, if anything its her earlier work that Rae ends up vaguely mimicking on The Heart Speaks In Whispers, except where Scott’s music oozed sensuality, Rae’s is nicely crafted but somehow lacks heart. It’s almost like they’ve put a cyber-vacuum over the master tapes and sucked out all the sweat and sex, and given the tapes a thorough Brazilian at the same time, just so there’s no aural peak of pubes.
The opening song, ‘The Skies Will Break’, suggests good things might be coming up, and its combination of piano, harp, guitar and synths gets that acoustic-synthetic thing almost right. It also surprises by very momentarily bursting into a surging anthem. ‘Hey, I Won’t Break Your Heart’ ventures into Al Green territory with its vaguely gospel feel and reassuring nature. It’s tender, and it’s warm, and that’s a good thing. But by the time we get to ‘Tell Me’, where she’s trying to get with the kind of funk that singers like Janet Jackson do so well, I’m thinking: her voice just isn’t suited to this.
As the album rolls on, it starts putting on ‘70s disco-soul makeup and threads, and on the very sexy ‘Horse Print Dress’, that works. But around the three-quarter mark, The Heart Speaks In Whispers suddenly seems over-long, despite having only 12 songs. It’s okay that Rae wants to try out various combinations and styles, but it soon becomes apparent that the songs themselves just aren’t that stand-out or memorable, and that somehow, they’ve forgotten that the most important instrument – her voice – needs to be right up close to the microphone so that it gets inside your head and makes you feel it.
Although her first album came out way back in 2006, this is only Rae’s third. The odds aren’t great that she’ll find a way to really harness her talents any time soon. That’s a great pity. GARY STEEL
[Note: Gary Steel reserves the right to reappraise and alter his star ratings up or down at any time].