“I feel it’s this weird punk, jazz kind of moment for me,” Corinne Bailey Rae told Stereoboard last year. It’s not a statement you might expect from a Grammy-winning singer who’s best-known for warm, easy-going neo-soul that soundtracked many a suburban dinner party in the late ‘00s. What next? Katie Melua dabbling in speed-metal? Norah Jones in corpse paint?
And yet here we are: ‘Black Rainbows’, Rae’s fourth album, swings from crunching glam-punk to skronking experimental jazz that wouldn’t sound out of place on David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’. There are left turns, and then there’s this. The Leeds-raised musician’s creative epiphany occurred on tour in Chicago, where she visited the Stony Island Arts Bank, a centre of Black history that honours African-American citizens while holding the country’s brutally racist past to account.
This challenging array of exhibits fired Rae’s imagination. Her new album’s centrepiece, lead single ‘New York Transit Queen’, was inspired by a photo of Audrey Smaltz, a Black 17-year-old model who won the Miss New York Transit pageant in 1954. The result is a fabulous blast of riot grrrl with enough handclaps, guitar squalls and joyously chanted vocals to blow a hole in the 6 Music playlist. We’re a long way from ‘Put Your Records On’.
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On the flipside is ‘Erasure’, a pummelling neo-grunge track that sees Rae spit, through distorted vocals, about her disgust at the violence that besets Black children: “They try to erase you / They try to eviscerate you.” It’s a stunning piece of protest music that puts many a full-time punk band to shame (which is less surprising than it seems, given that she fronted a teenage riot grrl group with the extremely hardcore name Helen).
Rae initially planned to release this record – her independent debut – as a “side project”, but ultimately found the confidence to place ‘Black Rainbows’ front-and-centre. Perhaps that’s why the album also trades in the accessible sounds with which she made her name – take the pretty piano ballad ‘Peach Velvet Sky’ and loungey Winehouse pastiche ‘He Will Follow You With His Eyes’. Even the latter, though, segues into a spooky electronic soundscape.
The gear shifts can be jarring, but album four is actually more cohesive than it has any right to be, a fact its creator has attributed to her common thread of influence in Stony Island Arts Bank. Horns up: Corinne Bailey Rae has thrown the musical curveball of the year.
- Release date: September 15, 2023
- Record label: Black Rainbows Music