For the last year, Rhye made music under a cloak of anonymity. Who exactly was making this intoxicating sound? The airy, androgynous vocals led many listeners (and more than a few reviewers) to conclude that the lead singer was a woman.
In the last few weeks, the personalities behind Rhye have stepped forward: Canadian multi-instrumentalist Mike Milosh and Danish electro-soul artist Robin Hannibal. And, yes, Milosh’s vocals do occasionally echo that ‘80s paragon of coolly remote lounge-soul, Sade.
Rhye’s debut album, “Woman” (Innovative Leisure), is a beautifully sequenced song cycle of soul music with the flame turned low. It’s sexy, but not overheated. Sade had the ability to make sensuality sound cool, even a bit remote, as if she were trying to conceal the hurt from a love affair by limiting herself to a melancholy whisper. Milosh is more transparent, but he also keeps things at low volume, often rising to a delicate falsetto that blurs gender lines. He sings with restraint and directness about love and lust, while still leaving something to the imagination.
“Open” begins with a string arrangement that suggests the first crack of sunlight through a bedroom window. “I’m a fool for that shake in your thighs/I’m a fool for the sound in your sighs,” Milosh sings. The way he stretches the word “fool” evokes Marvin Gaye’s phrasing, relaxed even as it smolders with longing. The song catches the narrator between sleep and wakefulness, shaking loose the cobwebs, the first thoughts in his head rewinding to a tryst a few hours earlier.
The album documents the stages of a love affair, each track an exquisitely arranged snapshot of a moment in time. Percussion percolates, bass lines exude an almost subliminal pull (while occasionally rising to a dancefloor-worthy pulse, especially on “Last Dance” and “Hunger”). Strings and horns flicker in and out, sometimes barely noticed, sometimes for only a few seconds – each note adding or subtracting a few carefully calibrated degrees to the emotional temperature.
The usual sonic cliches of the “quiet-storm” sound aren’t much in evidence: the unctuous saxophones, the stacks of synthetic keyboard goo. The sound of dripping water sets the pensive tone of “Verse.” In “3 Days,” the strings make a seductive entrance midway through the song, and then slip away, as if to affirm the narrator’s rueful observation: “Love is terminal/not built to last/burn bright/burn fast.” On the closing title track, Milosh’s voice becomes another instrument atop an undulating, neo-classical synthesizer line, repeating the word “woman” over and over until it finally turns into pure sound. At a certain point, words fail.