CORINNE BAILEY RAE
Black Rainbows (Thirty Tigers)
OKAY, HANDS UP WHO SAW this coming? Liars!
Always a considered songwriter, more emotionally complex than her categorisation as a pleasant/smooth pop soul singer suggested, Corinne Bailey Rae nonetheless did not look like someone who would come rushing at you like a punk-toned brat, stretch that soul into squawky jazz funk or turn an arthouse mirror towards bleeping electronica.
Certainly not on an album that also had the gently undulating moments, vibrating slow soul and intimate piano ballads of our expectations – after all her best-known song remains, 17 years on, the summery joy of Put Your Records On – treating all of these “contradictory” elements as equals. Not just as equals, but as valid responses to artistic stimuli.
Yet here we are. As with the fascinating (and completely different) recent album from Roisin Murphy, Bailey Rae thrives by cutting out external voices and doing exactly what she wants. And what she wants is a whole lot of things.
Black Rainbows is the fruit of Bailey Rae’s encounters with the archives of Arts Bank in Chicago, a collection of books, furniture, art and objects from the African-American experience. In them she saw, and just as importantly felt, centuries of love and pain and trauma, successes and journeys and recurring battles. In return, these songs came out. And very often they are stunning.
The simple but spacious Peach Velvet Sky, told from the perspective of a runaway slave who has left her children behind, staying near but unable to touch, feels almost free-form in its melody. But its roots are deep and encompassing. Against an anchoring piano, Bailey Rae glides and reaches and dives, both barren and hopeful: quietly shaking at the thought that “I missed your quiet hands/Their tiny weight”; pinning her hopes on something ephemeral but real, “Crimson violet night/I can see a peach velvet sky”.
There is the shock of that finger-snapping, gum-chewing spitball slapping into punky guitar rolls in New York Transit Queen, a celebration of a first for a 1950s black woman that feels like a revelation for a 1970s black teen, in the same company as the neo-soul glistening of Red Horse or the expansive introspective funk packed into an impossibly brief two minutes of the title track. And there are the primitive synth curlicues and hippie chants of Earthlings that is both space age and age of Aquarius, preceded by Erasure’s blend of Bikini Kill’s sharp elbows and jagged guitars with Living Colour’s rolling propulsion, both existing in the same environment as the deconstruction and rebuilding/probing strings and looped beats of Put It Down.
By the time we reach the Afro-pulse spiritual jazz of Before The Throne Of The Invisible God, whose five minutes close out the album, the parameters of this journey are well understood but still surprises come. Saxophone and harp, bird call and hand drums, sampled voices and Bailey Rae weaving through it all as part wind and part cosmic dancer – it is a whole world, enigmatic but engrossing.
No, I didn’t see it coming. But I will be following it.
APPLE MUSIC: Listen to Corinne Bailey Rae – Black Rainbows