Imagine a city, if you will, not entirely unlike your own. If you do not live in a city, think of a city you are familiar with. Now picture the city in a slightly altered state, a sort of half-heterocosm. I don’t mean in a futuristic, dystopian (or utopian) sort of way– but instead everything is just a little darker. The Sun sets a little bit earlier, the street lamps glow just a little dimmer, the light is loosely choked as if through a filter. The buildings have a thin layer of grime and the streets seem to have been neglected in the cleaning process. Grey and red buildings aren’t uniform in aesthetic, but rather have that early 20th century American appearance– box and bricked as if straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. In a word, it’s bleak but not overtly so. And before everything starts to seem a little too Frank Millerish, we come to an underground bar, in which a non-descript neon light bathes the cement steps leading down to a reddish door. From out on the street a low buzz of music penetrates the brick walls and so we travel in for a closer look. In a bar full of characters that seem down on their luck there sits a stage. It’s lit with a single spotlight that wavers in the smoky air saturated with liquor. Up on that stage is Corrine Bailey Rae and she’s probably singing “I Would Like to Call It Beauty.”
Extravagant analogies aside, I call upon such a story by remembering a question I was asked in an admissions interview for a school of architecture two years back. After playing an original composition for the three interviewers, the senior member asked me, “how does music correlate to architecture?” I was a little bit confused, “you mean, in terms of the creative process?” I queried in an attempt to clarify. “No,” he went on, “I mean, the basis of music is harmony, bass and melody– so how can you apply this to architecture?” It was a rather stumping question at the time, but if I were to answer it again now I would almost certainly turn to Corrine Bailey Rae’s new album The Sea and tell a similar tale to that of my opening paragraph. That’s because the album breathes a sense of detail that fits the city that I constructed. It’s not an overly original place, mind you, and any number pieces of fiction could present a similar setting, but that’s exactly the point. The Sea breathes a certain vitality into a place that’s just ever slowly slightly darker and murkier then real life.
“Cause I’ve been lying awake at night” Rae sings in her delectable smoky-smooth voice on “Paper Dolls” which certainly holds the most edge on the album, with its steady rock beat, pulsing bass and organ touches. It’s a telling line, one that wraps the overall feeling of blues that pervades throughout the album into a neat little bow. “Paper Doll” may be an exception to the musical rule on The Sea as most of the tracks are very relaxed and down tempo, as if really watching the swirls of smoke ablaze in that spotlight. “Love On It’s Way” creates an air of tension with strings and vibraphone before releasing when the drums roll in and a wonderful vocal melody soars the chorus to a great finale. The song is a standout on an album full of inspirational moments.
The smoother, introspective moments are nicely buoyed by livelier, poppier moments. For every slow burner like the silky opener “Are You Here?”, which ends in a flourish not unlike “Love On It’s Way”, there is a “Blackest Lily” with a great guitar solo. For every sweet, “I Would Like to Call It Beauty”, we have the punchy horn lines of “Closer”. It all accumulates into a great finished package that feels as complete and well rounded as the very best that neo-soul can create. With the lovely comedown closer “The Sea” bringing home a great album it is hard to find much fault in here. Certainly some tracks work better than others, and those familiar with this type of music won’t be surprised by anything on here. But a great vocal performance and solid musicianship from the backing band result in a record well worth the time. So as we leave that down-trodden bar after The Sea is finished, we might realize that it’s the wee hours of the morning, and the sun is just about to come up.