Secret Meeting score: 65
by Mark Jackson and Phil Scarisbrick
Rae Morris’ sophomore album Someone Out There is one we’ve been waiting to hear with keen interest. Several Meeting contributors had the great pleasure of sharing line-ups with her when, chaperoned by her father on the North West circuit, she was still two years away from being able to approach the bar for a drink. Nonetheless, her incredibly raw talent as a singer/songwriter saw her captivate audiences despite her incredible youth. Isolated and alone, making eye contact only with the keys on her red Roland keyboard, Morris timidly thanked an ever growing fan base for the increasingly enthusiastic reception she received. Morris quickly progressed to demoing songs with Manchester’s Halle Orchestra; attracting sponsorship deals with clothing brands including Burberry; and amassing tens of thousands of YouTube hits, before deservingly being heralded as one of Britain’s most exciting young talents through BBC music’s Introducing platform.
In the case of Rae Morris, I’m in the unfamiliar position of reviewing an artist who I witnessed at the age of 16 play a set of five songs, which led me to hope that the spirits of Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush and Carole King could be re-planted into the psyche of modern music. It was a truly unique experience playing and watching music around the North West for many years, and then becoming blatantly aware that one of our own was surely set to break into stardom. A rare talent that needed nothing more than a keyboard to enchant and captivate a crowd. Unfortunately the Morris that was presented in 2015 debut Unguarded, felt abandoned from all that we had loved about her. It seemed to want to catch on to the coattails of the pop culture zeitgeist, rather than forge a path all of its own for this hugely talented young woman. That’s not to say that the songs were bad – they weren’t. But the way they were presented felt sterile; an amalgam of the piano-based ballads that had previously captured our attention with the modern pop formulaic structure that stripped the songs of anything unique. The album was anything but Unguarded.
So does Someone Out There break these shackles and return Morris to what first enraptured her fledgling audience? Well, yes and no. This album is good, and Morris undoubtedly is a talented creative influence. But the ‘design by committee’ flaws of Unguarded are still there. Album opener Push Me to My Limit returns Blackpool’s finest voice to the spotlight it deserves. Vocally fronting the sound and tension building strings and horns, Morris’ voice shines in a way we haven’t heard since 2012 demo Don’t Go. This sparse and atmospheric track, free from the over production of previous singles, Reborn, Do It, and Atletico, kicks things off wonderfully and leaves us hoping for more of the same.
Unfortunately what we get next is the three aforementioned singles. Each as radio friendly and generic as the last, and if heard for the first time could easily be mistaken for any of the long list of female, mass marketed ‘singer-songwriters’ – think Jess Glynn, Ellie Goulding, or Jessie J. Wait For It, Lower the Tone, and Dip My Toe, continue in a similarly vexing manner. Deep electronic bass tones, topped with other complexities of automated sounds, all compete for space and detract from the melodies, which are actually rather well put together. Left isolated, they would endure in the mind long after the album’s finale.
Like opener Push Me to My Limit, the album’s title track is a misfit among the record’s predominantly artificial feel. A beautiful Beatles-esque piano ballad that inspires hope in the lonely – ‘Someone out there loves you/someone out there is lonely too’ – the song demonstrates Morris’ natural ability to weave something special into the simplest of melodies. Here, together with the gentle piano moments of next track Rose Garden, she provides us with the record’s most enjoyable moments. There is a reason that Morris’ people continue to release acoustic or demo versions (both Do It and Atletico are online) and keep early EPs on streaming sites; like the stripped back Someone Out There, they tend to be better than the ‘finished’ article.
Morris’ label has championed the Blackpool native as a modern ‘pop experimentalist’ and a creative force who combines modern pop with a ‘complex electronica’. But these songs unfortunately fall a long way short of pushing boundaries and genres in the way Bjork, Anohni and Morris’ own musical hero Kate Bush do. With production from boyfrind Fryars (Mika, Lilly Allen), Ariel Rechtshaid (HAIM, Adele), My Riot (London Grammar, Bloc Party), Fred Gibson (Brian Eno, RAYE), Buddy Ross (Frank Ocean) and Starsmith (Jess Glynne, Clean Bandit, Ellie Goulding), as well as mixing from Dan Grech (Halsey, Wolf Alice, Lana Del Ray, Regina Spektor), nobody could accuse Morris of a lack of ambition. However, the overall sound is one that despite intention, is all too familiar. It may be that this is exactly the kind of music she wishes to make, and if so they have pulled it off very well.
Backed by a major label and designed to cross the demographics of both Radio 1 and Radio 2 audiences, Morris will undoubtedly find increased commercial success with Someone Out There. But it’s a great shame that a talent with such natural ability to create wistful and charming melodies has become only an influence in the process of releasing a modern day pop record, and the ‘committee’ feel of her debut release endures.