Specializing in jazzy versions of pop tunes, both modern and vintage, singer Holly Cole became one of Canada’s best-known alterna-pop stylists in the early 1990s. Her Holly Cole Trio, featuring the fine accompanists Aaron Davis on piano, and David Piltch on bass, was an in-demand act on campuses, and in cities large enough to have a soft-seat venue. The Trio’s first two releases, Girl Talk (1990) and Blame It on My Youth (1992) did well domestically, especially considering their utter lack of commercial radio support. A few years later, Cole scored a much-deserved cross-over hit with her propulsive, plaintive, yet sultry remake of “I Can See Clearly Now”, from Don’t Smoke In Bed, the Holly Cole Trio’s third disc in four years.
It is this early part of her career that is documented most satisfyingly on The Best of Holly Cole, a recently released 13-song retrospective that features both album and live cuts. Unfortunately, the CD also documents Cole’s late ‘90s career when she jettisoned the Trio (the name, but fortunately not the players) and reinvented herself as a middle-of-the-road AOR chanteuse.
The songs from Cole’s early albums defy easy generic categorization, just as firmly as the later ones seem desperate for it. Although her style, alternative in the word’s truest sense, leans toward arty lounge music, it predated the mid-‘90s “Lounge Revival” by five or more years, and is mercifully free of that fleeting genre’s smirking irony. During her best pop interpretations, like Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”, Lyle Lovett’s charming “God Will”, or “Trust in Me” (from Disney’s Jungle Book!) Cole slows the songs down and stretches out the lyric, augmenting her smooth, but limited, alto with idiosyncratic vocal mannerisms. This is generally effective except for the occasionally grating overuse of a thin, nasal “little girl” affectation she employs when going up high. Meanwhile, her acoustic players display a very nice touch, supporting Cole with an always-appropriate mix of spooky grooves, bright noodling, or angular, powerful vamping.
Despite its strong start, the middle part of The Best of Holly Cole, featuring cuts from her 1995 Tom Waits tribute album, Temptation, is only sporadically successful. Her take on “Jersey Girl”, complete with ‘60s “girl-group” backing vocals is fun, but her other assaults on The Hoarse One’s catalogue are disappointingly flat. To find new depth in Waits’ already-eccentric catalogue requires a pop singer with good pipes, and real emotive power—you can’t out-quirk Waits. Since Cole’s forte is adding character to pure pop tunes in the form of tics, flutters, and an acoustically funky groove, she doesn’t have much room to move on Train Song” or “I Want You”. As a result, she plays it straight, and the songs seem a little directionless.
Similarly, both her studio version of The Beatles “I’ve Just Seen a Face”, and a previously unreleased (except in Japan, where Cole actually has a significant following) live recording of Elvis Costello’s “Alison” are depressingly bland. “I’ve Just Seen a Face” actually received quite a bit of airplay (at least up here in Canada) and I heard it dozens of times on the “Lite” radio station with which my previous employer used to torture me. Despite this exposure, the song has such an off-the-Faith-Hill-rack sound that I never even realized it was being sung by a “new and improved” Holly Cole until the thing turned up on this collection. Frankly its inclusion on this CD is a bit of a head-scratcher. Although most fans of her work with the Trio are probably not jazz purists, it is hard to imagine that many will be impressed by such adult-contemporary fare.
There is no doubt that The Best of Holly Cole has a few alterna-torch song gems, especially the cuts from her early discs, but overall the CD feels slapped-together. By including some so-so live material, plus her middle-of-the-road quasi-hits, Cole’s label is really not doing her reputation any favours. If you want to hear the REAL best of Holly Cole’s jazzy-pop/poppy-jazz, do a little legwork—walk past this disc and ferret out her much more consistent releases, Blame It on My Youth and Don’t Smoke in Bed.