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When Corinne Bailey Rae opens her mouth, the music that emerges flows with ease and grace, the sound pure and sweet, the phrases immaculately cadenced. She makes it seem easy, natural.
It’s a voice that has been quiet for some time. The Yorkshire-born singer and songwriter was hailed on both sides of the Atlantic when she first emerged in 2006 with a debut album that went on to sell 4m copies worldwide. Her work — and her life — were subsequently turned upside down by what she referred to tonight as a “fracture in my life”: the death of her husband Jason Rae, a saxophonist, in 2008 from an accidental overdose of methadone and alcohol. A 2010 album, The Sea, which she was writing at the time of Jason’s death, has been followed by six years of near-silence. Now she’s back with an album, The Heart Speaks in Whispers, and a showcase gig at this intimate filigree venue.
The world to which she is returning will doubtless welcome a singer who not only sings so well, but who also crosses idioms so effortlessly. At a time when pop genres and pigeonholes are becoming increasingly fluid, if not actually superfluous, Bailey Rae’s appeal will be broad: tonight, she and her nimble four-piece band gave us heartfelt old-school soul (“Are You Here”), breezy summery guitar pop (“Put Your Records On”), shuffling soca (“Tell Me”), sultry sexy jazz-soul reminiscent of Maria Muldaur (“Green Aphrodisiac”), sweet and gentle R&B (“Like a Star”) and an anthemic affirmational tune (“Stop Where You Are”) that bore the unmistakeable hallmark of Coldplay. Mostly she stood, or sat with a guitar; when she did move to the music, she jumped up and down in her pleated floor-length gown with the infectious enthusiasm of a small girl dancing on her bed.
At times her music tended towards a certain blandness; the sense of uplift that forms a thread through many of her songs can become somewhat sugary. But at her best she was mesmerising. “Hey, I Won’t Break Your Heart” was a soul sensation full of light and shade, suggesting that this is her natural habitat: tender arpeggios from her acoustic guitar, a slow, swaying three-four rhythm, and that voice, soaring, cascading.