Bailey Rae's third album shines a spotlight on how versatile the singer has become.
Which Corinne Bailey Rae do you prefer? Is it the coffee shop soul singer who burst on the scene in 2006 with "Put Your Records O"”? How about the pop balladeer that won your heart with "Like a Star"? Perhaps it’s the R&B queen that pierces through on one of the singer’s latest singles, “Green Aphrodisiac”?
You could choose any of those and not be disappointed with The Heart Speaks In Whispers. The Leeds-born singer’s third album touches on all the signature traits that make Corinne Bailey Rae the Corinne Bailey Rae her fans have grown to love over the last decade or so. She recently told the website Female First that she feels the album is “really, really diverse. … There's some really playful songs and some kind of cosmic, quite trippy, soulful songs as well.”
And she’s not wrong.
Consider the difference between the set’s two best tracks. “Hey, I Won’t Break Your Heart” begins with a pretty acoustic guitar arrangement and Rae’s hummingbird voice before the electricity is turned on and a tasteful six-string floats on top of soulful blues. It isn’t long before the band spreads out, swinging along with ease, and the organs add girth to an already warm production. Sure, it never quite achieves the power its build suggests, but there’s something to be said for the subdued feel that plays the track out, a chorus of backing vocals fully in tow.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned “Aphrodisiac” is nearly six minutes of some of the best stuff this woman has ever put on record. It’s R&B for adults, and man, does it groove. Everything about it -- from the smooth, slap-bass funk, to the airy, sweaty atmosphere, to the sexy lyrical content -- is made for mature audiences. The accented beats that repeat throughout the song’s hook then go on to cement this song’s legacy as one of the best grown-up love-making surprises in 2016 rhythm and blues thus far. It just bleeds velvet.
Yet it’s very nuanced in distinction when it comes to “Heart”. The former lays itself back with immediacy that doesn’t translate into overbearing power while the latter overpowers its immediacy with a laid-back approach that’s deceptively strong. It’s a trick hard enough to pull off throughout an entire career, let alone on a single record. To say that Rae succeeds in announcing herself as a versatile artist with these 12 songs might actually be an understatement.
The rest of the work here bridges the gap between the two. “Do You Ever Think of Me” blossoms into a quirky, endearing feel that is held together by Rae’s acoustic guitar. A handful of horns eventually ease their way into the background, giving the track a sense of class that recalls the days when pop music was more concerned with orchestral arrangements than it was Instagram accounts. Plus, don’t sleep on the way this thing moves. For only a handful of traditional instruments, this gal sure does know how to make her music bounce.
Whispers only really falters when Rae sheds her soul and plays for pop. “Stop Where You Are” is a milquetoast version of a Script or Fray song with a female lead that feels like it was written explicitly to be played on VH1. “Caramel” is in the same bland vein, but is mildly saved by the singer’s willingness to go for it vocally throughout the chorus. These songs aren’t bad; they just aren’t as exciting as their surrounding brothers and sisters.
Because those brothers and sisters know how to dance. “Horse Print Dress” is 1980s R&B that takes just a tiny dose of influence from the disco era. Think Bruno Mars’s “Treasure” heading out for a night on the town with early Erykah Badu. Opener “The Skies Will Break” incorporates modern day Top 40 radio with its pop-EDM textures, the driving kick drum adding urgency to the refrain, “The skies will break for you, my friend.” And “Tell Me” recalls Rwandan artist Somi as it combines world music ethos with updated synths that ultimately burst into a dance hall/reggaeton hook that feels like an indie version of the Rihanna/Drake collaboration “Work”.
It’s fearless, the way she approaches the task of genre-bouncing. She’s not sitting still merely for the sake of not sitting still; she’s not sitting still because she’s an artist who has a very unique and very determined sense of versatility. That’s what makes Corinne Bailey Rae an essential artist. And that’s what makes The Heart Speaks in Whispers an essential modern day soul album.