Learning to Listen Excerpt 16: "Pop" without apology: The soul of Holly Cole

Holly Cole (b. 1963) is an exemplary singer of superior popular songs. She is perhaps the quintessential model of what a modern interpreter of popular songs can achieve to appeal to contemporary ears and reach toward the vocal pantheon.  From the outset of her recording career (the Nova Scotia native debuted in Canada on 1990’s Girl Talk; her U.S. debut was 1992’s Blame it On My Youth) she has been the kind of singer critics seeking a quality pop experience long for. She is a jazz-oriented singer whose innovative style defies the fuddy-duddy image many young people have of jazz. Cole is also the kind of pop/rock-oriented singer that jazz folks and other discriminating audiences can embrace without embarrassment. Essentially everybody wins when listening to Holly Cole sing.

 The cover of Holly Cole's 2007 masterpiece of swing and noir ballads.

The cover of Holly Cole's 2007 masterpiece of swing and noir ballads.

The shape of her recording career reveals her talent for drawing on jazz, cabaret, soul and rock elements deftly. She also continually defies the Peggy Lee/Julie London style “ingénue” tag lazy critics apply to any white female singer who sings standards. On Blame it on My Youth and 1993’s Don’t Smoke in Bed she demonstrates several core values including her ability to locate the best popular songs from various eras and her desire to interpret them freshly; the ability to swing; talent for singing a ballad tenderly; and most importantly, the ability to imbue songs with humor, flair, and emotional intelligence. These sensibilities culminate in a clear view of her as a modernist with classicist tendencies.

As a vocalist born in the mid-1960s Cole is part of a generation of musicians whose recordings more inclined toward sparseness than excess and more self-effacing than attention-hungry. On these initial albums, the billing is the Holly Cole Trio which provides room for pianist Aaron Davis, and bassist and percussionist David Piltch to share the spotlight. The tightness of their unit, augmented by guest soloists, makes it easier for the group to craft and sustain a voice as opposed to the more faceless big ticket production style that can easily overwhelm a new singer in the jazz/cabaret field.

 Cole began her recording career as a band leader of Trio featuring piansit Aaron Davis and bassist/percusisonist David Piltch.

Cole began her recording career as a band leader of Trio featuring piansit Aaron Davis and bassist/percusisonist David Piltch.

1990’s Girl Talk is raw—there are times when she pushes her voice to explosive limits and needs to tone things down as on an overdramatic “Spring Can really Hang You Up the Most. ” But even when she overshoots you want to know what’s next. At her best moments, she is smart and poised. “Talk to Me Baby” is a delicate plea sung gently and tenderly; it is a remarkable display of control.  She wraps her sumptuous voice around a funky “Cruisin’ ”—Smokey Robinson has rarely sounded so slyly sexy.  “Girl Talk” is knowing and ironic; “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” breaks your heart.  At the outset, she establishes key aspects of her musical character and persona.

The attitude on Blame is openhearted, but emotionally firm. Cole avoids lazy nostalgia and brazen irony, which makes Blame It on My Youth consistently inviting. She has glorious fun with “If I Were a Bell,” possesses perfect timing for the bite of Lyle Lovett’s sardonic “God Will,” and gives a big hearted yearning rendition of Bob Telson’s “Calling You.” In the world of the Cole Trio Tom Waits (“Purple Avenue”) is on equal footing with Frank Loesser and each is song is a mini-statement interpreted with melodic respect and lyrical precision. There is also a refreshing mix of rhythmic variety and harmonic scope. “God Will” plays like a blues ballad in the Charles Brown mold. Cole voices a swinging “If I Were a Bell” with a sassy sexual forthrightness that updates the goofy lyrics, and the piquant violin solo (courtesy of Johnny Fringo) drives the tune home. “Honeysuckle Rose” has a stirring bounce that builds into double time climax. “Calling You” is sung with the intensity of a field holler—there’s a stirring rawness to her performance that convinces me that it is one of the best torch songs ever. It’s no coincidence that singers as diverse as George Michael, Jeff Buckley, Paul Young, Patti Austin, Natalie Cole, Barbra Streisand, Etta James , among others heard something worthwhile in the song. Holly Cole’s version might be the best yet.

 1992's Blame it On My Youth is an eclectic masterpiece featuring sterling interpretation from writers as varied as Frank Loesser and Lyle Lovett.

1992's Blame it On My Youth is an eclectic masterpiece featuring sterling interpretation from writers as varied as Frank Loesser and Lyle Lovett.

Don’t Smoke in Bed is also a Trio record with standards and new pop, but is even bolder in many respects. She and her Trio transform Johnny Nash’s sunny “I Can see Clearly Now” from a light pop song to a stunning anthem of optimism. As the song builds from blue skies to clear skies the harmonies soar and so does Cole—it may be her most transcendent vocal moment. “So and So,” which I was unfamiliar with previously, is a swinging bass driven number sung with believable anger and resignation, and has a unique moment where Cole chants indecipherably to herself over finger snaps. She renders “Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday,” a ‘70s Philly Soul hit, as a secular gospel song. She and her bandmates make it strut as a mid-tempo soul-torch song, with sizzling Joe Henderson sax solos and gospel piano, rife with layers of yearning and glee that unfold bar-by-bar to the point of nearly exploding.

It is notable that this was released in the same year Cassandra Wilson’s classic Blue Light Til’ Dawn featured a radically haunting interpretation of the Philly Soul song “Children of the Night.” Wilson’s chief interpretive tool was to place songs under a blanket of blue harmonies with African-inspired chanting and percussion and slow tempos. Comparatively, Cole favors a gradual accumulation of small gestures that sweeps you up into a big emotional build. Cole did not receive the same level of acclaim, but what she achieves is as sublime and surprising.

Cole delves deeper into the chanteuse mold recording the bittersweet Willard Robison penned Peggy Lee vehicle “Don’t Smoke in Bed”  and Kurt Weill’s “Je Ne T’Aime Pas.” She sings them as hauntingly beautiful as you expect, but they are conventional compared with some of the odder songs.  More memorable are her takes on curios like “Que Sera Sera” and “The Tennessee Waltz” which she sings with an adult sensibility beyond their hit versions by Doris Day and Patti Page respectively. On a whole the production is bigger, including a few string arrangements and more guests, and the repertoire is a bit more traditional (including Cole Porter’s “Get out of Town” and “Blame it On my Youth”), but it confirms the Trio’s fresh approach to pop of many stripes.

Some critics frame Cole as a jazz singer; others view her as a kind of postmodern cabaret singer. In truth her choices suggested a greater loyalty to her developing hybrid of contemporary and classic pop than a particular genre. 1995’sTemptaiton, a Tom Waits songbook album solidifies the translation of her unique language. The choice of Waits is interesting for being the first of its kind in the jazz world and for anticipating a generational reverence for Waits that eventually came in the 2000s. Like Cole, Waits draws careful flecks from the past—notably blues and jazz—to color his self-portrait.  He also experiments relentlessly, avoiding genre, which make he and Cole a logical match.

Rather than approaching Waits’s songs as pop songs in need of obvious swing elements or “jazzing up,” the Trio continues to approach songs sparsely treating each song as a unique artifact whose content should dictate the approach.  Waits’s songs tend to be character sketches representing aspects of his persona and can be melodically slight. Cole, however, does for him what Jennifer Warnes did for Leonard Cohen—she renders them as melodically interesting songs with enough meat for a skilled vocalist to go to new places.  The most successful performances draw on Cole’s honed sense of phrasing and the Trio’s impressive arranging choices. Waits’s songs require a certain mastery of tone and a sense of character to work, and Cole understands these qualities.

“I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” is a tender lullaby on the terror of adulthood sung from a child’s point of view. Cole is a reliable narrator who walks you through a kind of general lament to the overwhelming depiction of instability and anger the lyrics portray. “Jersey Girl” has a trashy slant with overdubbed “sha-la-las.” Cole makes for a convincing waitress in “Invitation to the Blues” and projects just the right amount of world weariness on “Tango Til They Sore” and “The Heart of Saturday Night.” Not everything sticks out from the set, but it’s notable nonetheless for solidifying a kind of experimental approach to interpretation that’s modern but undefinable. Temptation has rock-ish elements but I would hardly call it rock or modern rock; there is a moodiness with cabaret overtones, but there is a viscerality here traditionally lacking in cabaret. Jazz elements surface here and there, but the rhythms are only tangentially related.  I raise this only because this is one of the few albums I can think of that a die-hard fan of any of these genres could enjoy without a second thought.

Cole’s turn toward rock occurred ostensibly on 1997’s Dark Dear Heart. Cole interprets material by the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Sheryl Crow, and works with Larry Klein, a pop/rock producer previously married to Mitchell. The instrumentation has a traditional rock rhythm section with electric guitar, drums, electric bass, and modern touches like drum loops. This may sound like pandering or selling out to pop. However, these are not radio-friendly tunes and Cole always defies your expectations. Temptation freed Cole from the cabaret and jazz tags, and this album probably felt freeing as well given her clear awareness and affinity for contemporary songs.

I am not sure if it would immediately catch the attention of a traditional jazz or cabaret listener, but it would certainly draw a rock fan to Cole’s catalog. This is a moody album with a torchy undercurrent. The pained ballad “Make It Go Away” and the waltz “Onion Girl” are great cry-in-your-cocktail songs that work on their own terms. Mitchell’s “River” can lapse into simpiness in the wrong hands, but Cole rises above sentimentality giving it a tough yet tender reading. Many of the songs revolve around the need for heartache to be heard and consoled, and sustain a haunted, melancholic mood leavened by glints of humor and irony. Cole gradually builds from a menacing and seductive version of Lennon and McCartney’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face” to a series of eclectic laments including “Onion”’s waltz, the funk inflected mid-tempo ballads “World Seems to Come and Go” and “Hold On,” and moody midnight ballads like the vampish “Timbuktu” and a trumpet spiked “All the Pretty Little Horses.”  This is a progressive, entrancing recording that defies easy categorization—much like its interpreter.   

 On  this 2000 album Cole digs into the songbooks of The Shirelles, Paul Simon, and Frank Sinatra brilliantly.

On  this 2000 album Cole digs into the songbooks of The Shirelles, Paul Simon, and Frank Sinatra brilliantly.

2000’s Romantically Helpless is a seamless fusion of her catholic music interests. Its rock instrumentation resembles Dark Dear Heart, but conceptually it completes the virtual trilogy begun by Temptation. The way she employs Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer, Randy Newman, the Shirelles, Stephen Sondheim, and Paul Simon to tell her tale may make her one of the most resourceful and genuinely versatile singers in pop music. Her ability to draw these together to convey the promise and disappointment of love is a masterstroke. For example, “Come Fly with Me” is not played as the breezy invite Sinatra offered. Cole sings it as a plea for a lover to live a little, but also to give her a last chance emotionally. In slowing the tempo and brushing the song in a bluer vocal shade, she treats it as a living text worthy of a fresh take.

2003’s Shade (rare but available as an import) is Cole’s most fully realized vision of interpreting standards in a contemporary vein. Jazz-oriented, but not beholden to jazz technique, Cole sores (or rather shimmers) as a vocalist, arranger, and musician, playing xylophone and glockenspiel on a few tunes.  Thematically speaking her tone is cool but she emits sizzling sensuality throughout building the tensions on tunes like “Too Darn Hot” and “Heat Wave.” In addition to these blistering efforts Cole conveys immense tenderness in a deep reading of “God Only Knows” (the only rock era standard here) and a mystical, hushed performance of “We Kiss in a Shadow.”  The fresh arrangements, mastery of tone and Cole’s overall emotional command make this a genuine masterpiece of jazz-based expression.

 There is a fearlessness in these first six albums that makes her virtually unrivaled among other interpretive singers of her generation. As a Canada-based artist Cole has had far less visibility in the U.S. than many other acts, but her albums are easy to find and ripe for discovery.  She is comparable to singers like Janis Siegel, Diane Schuur, Patricia Barber, and Cassandra Wilson. She breaks stylistic boundaries and explores the ways jazz, rock, soul, and pop can speak to each other fluently in a contemporary interpretive language.

On 2007’s Holly Cole the singer records one of her most overtly jazz-oriented sets in years. Drawing songs mostly from American musical theater and film themes with a touch of Brazilian and American pop, she is really in her element. The performances are uniformly focused and convincing highlighted by her swinging rendition of “It’s All Right with Me,” lovingly romantic, delicately-paced versions of the 60’s film ballads “Charade” and the chanson “I Will Wait for You,” and her cinematic rendition of the obscure “The House is Haunted by the Echo of Your Last Goodbye.” Over 15 years into her recording career and Cole is still reaching toward her zenith. 

2011’s Steal the Night is a live concert featuring Cole classics like “Calling You” and “I Can See Clearly Now” sung with gusto and taste. She also mixes in cool tunes like “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.” If anything, the set, at 40 minutes, is too short! For U.S. listeners it was actually a warm up for 2012’s Night a concept set featuring fresh takes on night themed songs. Cole has a perceptive concept of noir featuring a James Bond theme (“You Only Live Twice”), Gordon Lightfoot (“If You Could Read My Mind”), Elvis (“Viva Las Vegas”), and Jerome Kern (“I Only Have Eyes for You”) plus several originals. Only Cole could synthesize these into an entertaining romp through the shadows of night. Her ability to modernize these songs and reframe them to advance her theme is surprisingly coherent and satisfying.

 On 2012's Night, Cole modernizes songs from pop musicals, an Elvis  movie, and Gordon Lightfoot, among other sources.

On 2012's Night, Cole modernizes songs from pop musicals, an Elvis  movie, and Gordon Lightfoot, among other sources.

Though Holly Cole is best appreciated as an album maker the Canadian pressing of her 2004 compilation The Holly Cole Collection Volume I is the best overview of the first few years of her career. The set provides obvious highlights and signatures such as the pulsating “I Can See Clearly Now,” the spare and wistful “Calling You,” and her brilliantly intimate take on “Come Fly With Me.” The collection also includes selections from Shade and rarities like her covers of Prince’s “The Question of U,” Tom Waits’s “Shiver Me Timbers” and the jazz classic “Humdrum Blues.” The Collection Vol. 1 presents her skill and range in exemplary fashion and makes you curious for the next volume.

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