Crush Story: Corinne Bailey Rae is the complete package, almost.
Rae of Light
When will Americans accept a long-term relationship with a British soul singer?
By Todd Inoue
THE PATH FOR British soul singers navigating the United States pop market is notoriously rough, littered by hot-then-not apprentices like Craig David, Neneh Cherry, Floetry, Mica Paris, Swing Out Sister, Rick Astley, Alison Moyet, Omar and Soul II Soul. There's a great wall of expectation that's been hurdled by precious few, the most prominent bookending the '80s and today: Sade and Joss Stone.
So when an heir to the British soul throne comes along, I immediately perk up. Last week, I bathed in the radiant presence of Corinne Bailey Rae, and the confliction only became clearer. The 27-year-old R&B singer, born in Leeds, came into my radar only a few days prior through the sunny single "Put Your Records On." She plays guitar, writes deeply personal songs about love and sings with the organic freshness of India.arie and a shade of the shivering timbre of a young Billie Holiday. Her self-titled record, released in the United States in late June, went double platinum in the U.K. Alice and KKSF are spinning her single "Put Your Records On." VH1 anointed her with "You Oughta Know" status, hinting she could be on the fast track for a huge splash across the pond.
So with all these factors in place, why was her sold-out Bimbo's show so underwhelming? The major handicap was a tendency to skew toward the low-to-mid-tempo. You know the song in a show where everyone sits down? Ninety percent of the show consisted of songs in that vein. Even a valiant cover of Led Zeppelin's "Since I've Been Loving You" came off so benign it could have been used in a Biore commercial. So by the time Bailey Rae got to her single "Put Your Records On," there was a slight roar of recognition, but it barely registered a ripple on the Richter. The high point was a beautifully rendered "Like a Star," just acoustic guitar and Bailey Rae's exquisite voice.
Perhaps it's my own expectations of what an R&B singer should be—vulnerable yet empowered, spiteful and dangerous, spirited and unpredictable (see Ledisi, Chaka Khan, Jill Scott and Lauryn Hill for examples). Bailey Rae came off as rehearsed and polite; she barely broke a sweat up there or veered from the between-song banter script. The band—bass, drums, keyboards, two backup singers and a guitarist—needed added dynamics. A horn section and an actual Hammond B-3 organ would help tremendously to sell Bailey Rae's otherwise sturdily constructed catalog; Capitol Records, open up the checkbook to open up the stage!
Bailey Rae, in a grandiose reach, has the likability of Frenchy from Grease; she's the girl you root for but not the one the guys want to get with in the end. I know that the tons of older wannabe Tara Reids and Lorenzo Lamas in attendance sipping fruity cosmos (and tossing clothing onstage, much like at Welsh soul singer Tom Jones' shows) will probably disagree. But if they're getting their soul and R&B tips from a source like Alice or KKSF, more power to them.
I got to meet Bailey Rae afterward (thanks Tobi and Yoshi!) and picked her brain a bit. She grew up singing gospel, before listening to indie bands (even fronting a band inspired by L7 and Veruca Salt) and soul like Stevie Wonder. She admits she only pays attention to hip-hop in hindsight; she had no idea what "hyphy" was so I gave her a quick tutorial. In person, she's approachable and easy to talk to. On her feet were Dorothy-like sequin slippers, with silver sparkles instead of red. I can imagine her clicking her heels and wishing for a stateside success for her new album. I would wish for something bigger: an opportunity to put it down for British soul on a grand scale, because it shouldn't take 20 years between breakthrough and long-lasting British soul acts. Corinne Bailey Rae comes back to the Bay Area in November.
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