Music

Paula Cole: Courage

This 'singer's album' proves Cole’s long overdue return has been well worth the eight-year absence.


Paula Cole

Courage

Label: Decca
US Release Date: 2007-06-12
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

In concert, Paula Cole still sings "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?", her signature Top 10 hit from 1997, but these days the tune is no longer the Top 40 Adult Recurrent you remember. Instead, Cole sits at the piano and shifts the song's structure a bit so it's an altogether different, introspective performance. She is not, as Joni Mitchell once famously quipped about her own songs, a "human jukebox". If she is to perform the songs everybody knows, then those songs will damn well reflect the personal changes she's undergone since first recording them.

To paraphrase that famous title, the more pressing question for the past eight years has really been, "Where has Paula Cole gone?" After her last album, Amen (1999), didn't live up to sales expectations, Cole's disillusionment with the music industry catalyzed a move to the west coast where she raised her daughter, Sky, and considered an academic career at UCLA. She left her record label and all but forswore a career in music. However, if you looked closely enough over the past couple of years, Paula Cole wasn't completely in hiding: Annie Lennox sang a wrenching version of Cole's "Hush, Hush, Hush" on Herbie Hancock's Possibilities (2005) and Cole herself appeared on Chris Botti's When I Fall in Love (2004) and To Love Again (2005). Though a record deal fell through with Columbia (Botti's label), Decca brought Paula Cole aboard and gave her the opportunity to record an album completely free of the recent trends that have shaped other artists' high-profile returns to music making (i.e. this is not a covers album or duets project). If the quality of music on Courage is any indication, Cole's long overdue comeback has been well worth the eight-year absence.

Courage is a singer's album. The most commanding instrument here is Cole's voice, one that will enchant fans all over again. Those who only know Paula Cole from the once-ubiquitous "I Don't Want to Wait" will find there's plenty more to that powerfully elastic voice than the theme to "Dawson's Creek". Courage is also cathartic. It lays bare all of Cole's spiritual and personal trials from the past decade with an impressive candor. Emerging from the ashes are a warrior woman, a temptress, a poet, and an emancipated thinker. In fact, the spirit of Courage can best be described by a line from "14", one of many well-conceived tunes Cole (co) wrote for the album: "This mighty woman's ready to explode / Fire here below the surface of my volcano".

In the album's liner notes Cole writes, "That anyone is holding this album in their hands, reading these words, is a small miracle. It would not exist without Bobby Colomby." Producer Bobby Colomby (a founding member of Blood, Sweat and Tears) cajoled Cole back into recording. He gives her the royal treatment, enlisting an exceptional cadre of musicians including Herbie Hancock, David Foster, Ivan Lins, Chris Botti, and Paul Buchanan, but the spotlight shines brightest on the singer herself.

Cole's misty-eyed realization on "It's My Life" is the cartilage of the album's bones: "It's my life / And I am free / To live my life / The way I feel". The message may be simple, self-help 101, but anyone coming from a place of intense doubt and criticism - Cole's former manager said she would never work again - knows how the weight of those words cannot be underestimated.

In a maelstrom of critical self-reflection, Cole finds comfort on "Safe in Your Arms" and "I Wanna Kiss You". The former, co-written with Greg Phillinganes, buoyantly bounces along with a warmed reggae rhythm, while Latin percussion backs "I Wanna Kiss You", a sensual, seductive fantasy that teasingly complements the cover art of Cole's luscious red lips. "I wanna stop the conversation / I wanna kiss you / I wanna lean my body into yours", she whispers plaintively. After nearly an album's worth of songs about Cole's inner-turmoil, these two songs furnish a thematic lift to the listening experience.

A nod towards the jazzier, torch song side of Paula Cole surfaces on "Lonelytown", a tune wrapped in a cocktail-kissed piano melody played by Herbie Hancock. Her appearances on Chris Botti's albums revealed a keen understanding of traditional pop song phrasing. The appeal of "Lonelytown" suggests that an album-length immersion in this idiom would be rewarding for both performer and listeners.

It must be said, however, that Paula Cole's voice saves a couple of tracks from total schmaltz, particularly, "Hard to Be Soft" (a duet with Ivan Lins). The lyrics are too cute for their own good ("I wanna be a star / Like Marilyn Monroe / A Cinderella Fantasy / A naïve Clara Bow") and a stock samba arrangement does little to improve matters. Cole is such a skilled vocalist, though, that you can nearly forgive one or two ill-conceived ideas.

Most of the musical and lyrical ideas on Courage are triumphant. If there's any artist who deserves a second chance to alight listeners with her voice and inspire with her honesty it is Paula Cole. There's no need to ask where Paula Cole is anymore.

8

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta



19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller



18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr


17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr



16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image