Of the critically beloved UK female solo acts to impact the American music scene in the latter half of the last decade, Corinne Bailey Rae occupied the middle of the spectrum in nearly every way. While every bit as accomplished as her fellow exports, she was neither as brash as Lily Allen nor as morose as Adele, more earthly than Alison Goldfrapp and less ethereal than Duffy, not a controversial troubled auteur like Amy Winehouse nor pre-packaged pop product like Leona Lewis. Rae might be the most accessible artist of the bunch, particularly on her self-titled 2005 debut album, which earned Grammy nods for the album and singles, “Like a Star” and “Put Your Records On.” Following her husband’s sudden death from accidental overdose in early 2008, though, Rae took an indefinite hiatus from music, finally returning in early 2010 with The Sea, which displayed the singer’s artistic growth without abandoning the singer’s comfortable, if not especially adventurous, brand of mellow neo-soul.
Mellow doesn’t always make for groundbreaking soul music, but with The Love EP, her new set of cover songs, Rae expands the musical versatility she hinted at on The Sea. The five-track set further proves that the singer is comfortable in a wider range of style and emotion than she exhibited on her more cohesive, less than envelope-pushing previous works. The love-themed track list is still sufficiently varied as to allow Rae to explore some new stylistic ground. While the brief EP is no grand artistic statement in itself, it serves as enough of a sampler to suggest that a third full-length Corinne Bailey Rae album would be a worthwhile proposition.
The release benefits from strong song choices: material well suited to Rae’s unique voice that also provides fertile ground for stylistic exploration. On several tracks Rae simply explores the original artist’s style. Most successfully, she embraces the electronic sound of Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” rather than impose her own designs. The result is predictably pleasant. Her skilled but safe approach to Paul McCartney’s “My Love” is similarly faithful, but her take on Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” expands on Marley’s flirtations with American doo-wop, slowing the tempo “to underline the poignancy of the lyric,” she explains in the notes. Both tracks are proficient but don’t really offer many surprises. Both would sound right at home on her debut LP, or a Susan Boyle record for that matter.
The best tracks here are the more brazen interpretations. The energetic cover of Belly’s “Low Red Moon,” appears like the odd man out, driven by aggressive and patently uncharacteristic guitars, but shrewdly rides its mystique to victory. It’s the closing track though, a deliriously embellished live rendition of “Que Sera Sera,” that really kills (good thing, too, seeing as the nearly 14-minute track constitutes over half of the set’s total running time). Rae and her bandmates, who closed with the showstopping number on their most recent tour, opt for something less Doris Day (who first popularized the tune) and more Sly Stone (whose 1973 funk version was the only cover song to ever appear on a Sly and the Family Stone album). Rae builds the Oscar-winning number into a simmering slow jam, taking all the time in the world to make her point. The band stretches the song to the absolute limit of possibility, wringing every last molecule of feeling from the lightweight ode to life’s mysterious ways.
This track represents one of those rare recordings that so viscerally captures the thrill of a great live performance, and caps off a short but sweet set of entirely listenable covers. Corinne Bailey Rae may have moved past the facile pleasantries of innocent love, but that doesn’t mean love has left the building. The Love EP declares that love is still around; it’s just all grown up.
The Love EP Tracklist:
1. I Wanna Be Your Lover (Prince)
2. Low Red Moon (Belly)
3. Is This Love? (Bob Marley)
4. My Love (Paul McCartney)
5. Que Sera Sera (Live) (Doris Day/Sly & The Family Stone)
Check out more Corinne Bailey Rae at her website.