The British Norah Jones?

Songs you've got to hear.
March 17 2006 4:21 PM

The British Norah Jones?

And new albums from Ne-Yo and Neko Case.

Corinne Bailey Rae

Corinne Bailey Rae
Corinne Bailey Rae

Corinne Bailey Rae is a 26-year-old singer-songwriter from Leeds, England, with a lustrous blues-tinged voice. She sings traditionalist pop-soul songs that carry hints of other genres: a brushed bossa nova guitar chord here, a smeared bluesy phrase there. She's virtually unknown in the United States, but it probably won't be that way for long. Rae's debut album entered the British charts last week at No. 1. Her album comes out here in June—for the time being, you can buy it on import or download it from the British iTunes store—and unless her label totally bungles its marketing job, she'll be a big stateside star, too.

With good reason. Rae has one of those voices: beautiful and nimble, and above all alluring—a sound that sucks you right in. As I found out on Monday night, when I saw Rae play a brief set at Manhattan's Mercury Lounge, she can let rip like a gospel singer, but her normal mode is more subdued. She sings ballads like "Till It Happens to You" with unusual economy, making all the right phrasing choices and meting out emotion with a reserve that seems, well, British. Critics have likened her cool, bluesy croon, nicely flecked with grit, to Billie Holiday's. The U.K. press has also been talking her up as Britain's Norah Jones. There's something to both comparisons, but a closer model is Sade, a master of soulful understatement who hovers between genres and eras. Like Sade's albums, Corrine Bailey Rae will undoubtedly do heavy double-duty rotation as a soundtrack to both booty calls and brunches.

Sade has never been a critical darling, and Rae may well get dismissed, too: Mimosa music is rarely a big hit with rock critics. But if Corinne Bailey Rae's production is a touch too conservative, and occasionally too slick, the songs have surprising bite. Rae's lyrics chart relationships in decline, in painful detail. ("How come nothing feels the same when I'm with you/ We used to stay up all night in the kitchen/ When our love was new," she sings in "Till It Happens to You.") Even the unabashed love songs hold doubts and dark tidings. "Like A Star,"Rae's big hit, seems at first to be a gushing valentine, but then comes the bridge: "Still I wonder why it is/ I don't argue like this/ With anyone but you/ We do it all the time/ Blowing out my mind." Rae makes those lines feel like a swift kick to the heart.

In My Own Words by Ne-Yo

Ne-Yo
In My Own Words

"So Sick,"the debut single by Ne-Yo, is a bit of a fake-out—an old-fashioned song dressed up in a sleek 21st-century outfit. Beneath a tinkling synthesizer and some crisp digital hand claps lurks the kind of heartbreak number that the best Nashville and Brill Building songwriters used to churn out. "So Sick" has a neat conceit: Ne-Yo has lost his girl and can't bear listening to "sad and slow" love songs—but he just can't seem to turn off the radio. The melody gently crests and falls, like a long slow sigh, and the words are simple and sharply observed. ("Gotta change my answering machine/ Now that I'm alone/ Cause right now it says that/We can't come to the phone.") It's a kind of meta-song—a breakup ballad about breakup ballads—and it builds in its own advertising by glorifying the addictive quality of a good pop hit. "So Sick" is quite a hit (it's the No. 1 song in the country), and it's built to last: With its classical structure and strong tune, the song could be stripped to its bare bones and still kill. You can imagine a country troubadour singing it on an acoustic guitar, or a jazz vocalist doing a solo piano version—not something you can say about every chart-topper these days.

Ne-Yo co-wrote "So Sick," and he's damn proud of it. The album title, In My Own Words, is a boast about his songwriting prowess, an unsubtle shot across the bow of stars who lean heavily on songwriter-Svengalis. In other words, he's playing the authenticity card, which is kind of annoying, but it's probably a good strategy for distinguishing himself in a crowded R&B field. Ne-Yo is staking claim to the mantle of sexy auteur. Nothing on In My Own Words is quite as sublime as "So Sick," but all the songs are sturdy and well sung, and on "Get Down Like That,"he manages not to get completely overshadowed by guest rapper Ghostface—no mean feat. That song is typical of some of the emotional nuance Ne-Yo injects into timeworn formulas. It's a reformed player's pledge of fidelity ("I'm a man with a big healthy appetite for chicks/ But when I settle down … it can't be like that no more," Ne-Yo sings), but the longer the song goes on, the more he sounds like a guy lying to himself. By the four-minute mark, Ne-Yo is moaning, "Baby you fine, baby you's a dime/ But I just don't get down like that," and you just know it: This guy's gonna cave.

Fox Confessir Brings the Flood by Neko Case

Neko Case Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

For a far more elliptical brand of pop poetry there's the latest album by Neko Case, a top-tier indie-rock songstress and sometime member of the acclaimed Canadian "indie supergroup" the New Pornographers. (Here, she's backed by members of Calexico and Giant Sand.) Her dozen new songs are filled with lyrical flights and dense clusters of images. In the album-opening "Margaret vs. Pauline,"Case's description of a young woman sounds like the work of someone who has just finished a Masters in Elizabethan literature: "Ancient strings set feet alight to speed to her such mild grace … / They smoothed her hair with cinnamon waves/ And they placed an ingot in her breast to burn cool and collected." But the song is deceptive: In the final verse she shifts abruptly into a plain-spoken modern voice, and the song is revealed as a brutal sketch of the social class divide.

Two girls ride the blue line
Two girls walk down the same street
One left her sweater sittin' on the train
The other lost three fingers at the cannery
Everything's so easy for Pauline

Those kind of twists and shocks are all over Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. But what really makes the album absorbing is Case's lovely torch-singer's voice and the swirling, sulphurous music, a kind of desert Southwest chamber pop, with layers of reverbed guitars, rolling piano chords, and detours into lush dissonance —a big, unsettled sound well-suited to Case's sad and cryptic little poems.

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