Corinne Bailey Rae (CBR) is one of my all-time favorite vocalists and I’ve been a fan for just about 20 years, ever since I first heard her sing ‘Your Love Is Mine” with The New Mastersounds (NMS) back in 2003 on their ‘Be Yourself’ album. They’re all from Leeds, UK so it’s a close connection. At about that time I also became a fan of The Haggis Horns of whom, CBR’s deceased husband Jason Rae was a founding member. So, when Corinne’s eponymous debut album came out in 2006, I was already hooked. Then she hit the airwaves with ‘Like a Star’ and the breakout hit ‘Put Your Records On’ and I was all in as a devoted fan.
She’s got an ethereal quality to her, sensual, sensitive, spiritual and of course soulful. Her songs were often about love, loss, pleasure, pain, optimism, sadness and generally had a softer tone to them. I’ve seen her live twice, once several years back at Music Midtown Atlanta and then in early 2023 at Atlanta Symphony Hall, large venues with thousands of concertgoers at each. Both times, her performance brought out some cheerful tears from the beauty of the show.
Flash forward to the here and now and Corinne just released this monumental album – Black Rainbows. Why is it monumental? Well, it’s a departure from those she’s previously released. As explained on her website, “Inspired by the objects and artworks collected by Theaster Gates at the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago, the work includes a collection of songs, a book Reflections/Refractions at the Arts Bank photographed by Koto Bolofo, live performances, visuals, lectures, exhibitions, and more.”
So, it is an inspired album driven by the exhibits and messages of this space. I’ve not got the context yet for the contents in this exhibit, but I plan to explore it more fully. However, I do know that this album is different, the songs are more edgy, more balanced between the instruments and the vocals, and more varied in style as well. So, monumental in more ways than one.
‘Black Diamonds’ is different yet naturally wonderful. I’m incredibly excited to see it performed live on Friday September 22 in Sugar Hill, GA. For the tour, Corinne is performing at smaller, more intimate venues and I really hope I’ll get a chance to meet her!! Now, let’s get into the track-by-track rundown.
A Spell, A Prayer starts from an almost inaudible tone before hitting with some percussive bass and drums and classic CBR vocals, almost whisperlike before the full instrumentation comes on. It’s a compelling mix of ancient sounds coupled with some electronic scratch music. It breaks down to a heartbeat + clock ticking sound before reemerging with a prayer-like, swirling chorale.
Black Rainbows feels more percussive and edgy from the start with limited melody and almost background spoken lyrics akin to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living For The City‘. It fades out to what I hear vaguely like a distant emergency vehicle siren. Interesting choice for the title track as it’s essential an instrumental tune.
Erasure fooled me when I started listening to the album in my car on the way home from a show. I heard this hard-edged, punky, grunge tune and I forgot I was listening to CBR. Without diving into the song origins, you get the outrage about injustice foisted onto the subject of the song. They tried to erase the person and that was totally unjustified.
Earthlings sounds futuristic with an electronic key and drum rhythm. Corinne again is speaking the vocals at the start establishing the alien voice before segueing into full vocals which call for a restart of Earthlings. It’s an full-throated exhortation to learn from our history, our past mistakes and get back to nature. The bridge, features gentle guitar, piano and birds chirping to establish that utopia right up to the birds-only ending (plus a key fade).
Red Horse starts with string-like keys sound before a march like keys and drums procession begins. This one feels closer to Corinne’s prior songs, absolutely beautiful instrumentation, simulating a horse ride with Corinne’s voice so mellifluous. She’s enticing, waiting for the horse rider, wanting to meet up. It’s super chill and beautiful. The overdubbed backing vocals for the last part is an emphatic accent motif.
New York Transit Queen is absolutely wild, a rollicking reflection of life in NYC, my hometown. It alternates some chanting of the title, lyrics and handclaps with some hard edged guitar-based rock and roll. It’s an absolute image-generator for the hustle and bustle of the city.
He Will Follow You With His Eyes absolutely melts me. It’s an absolutely classic soul classic, opening with some seductive lyrics right out of the seventies. When Corinne starts singing, she sounds like a 1/3 Petula Clark + 2/3 Amy Winehouse. I can’t help but hear echoes of Amy’s ‘Me and Mr. Jones’ right up to the Sweet Georgia Brown lyric – intentional or not? Somehow, I feel the true intention is to rebel against female objectification and trying to get men to ogle you by using a multitude of beauty products.
Put It Down starts with a full orchestral string sound that dissolves more into a synth plus kick drum theme. Corinne’s vocals express the need to shed sadness, put in down if you can. The second round picks up the tempo and volume a bit. The echo effect at the end of each line drives home the point. The instrumentation for the most part is minimalist, shifting from synth to kick drum to vox only and then back around.
At almost the exact midpoint, the vocal ‘started again’ repeats and the pace picks up with Corinne now trying to put down the sadness and start dancing and ‘partying in space.’ Each segment becomes more danceable right to end as the shift in mood is evident. The final minute evolves from a storm-like echo and scratching plus kick drum close.
Peach Velvet Sky plays out delicately with Corinne accompanied by just piano. The dramatic effect of this song feels like it would fit perfectly in a Broadway show, with Corinne center stage. The lyrics signal lamentation for lost love while looking at the magnificence of the sky and the universe. It’s a marvelous vehicle for her voice.
Before The Throne Of The Invisible God begins with some faint drums and a brief wind instrument before Corinne starts with the song title lyrics and is accompanied by some simple hand drums, chime percussion and more tempered melodic instruments. The volume picks up a notch with some sax and a range of very nature, elemental accompaniment. The lyric “a burning coal to my lips” is chanted up to the closeout with sax and percussion. It’s super intriguing how Corinne translated a part of the Chicago exhibition into a musical visualization.