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Paula Cole Review For Glide Magazine! January 03rd, 2011

Paula Cole

Yoshis SF, San Francisco, CA 11/3/10

By Peter Zimmerman

On her most recent album Ithaca, Paula Cole often sings about the process of homecoming, using the Greek myth of Odysseus and his ten-year sojourn away from home as a parallel for her album. The title, as well as the music on the album itself, is deeply personal, denoting upheaval, discord and eventual calm. While this comparison between her journey and Odysseus’ is especially apt, it can be extrapolated further to describe pretty much the way Paula Cole writes music. Her best songs (of which there are many beyond the singles) grapple with issues of acceptance, melancholy, sex, interpersonal struggles and the desire for peace and resolve. In the five minutes of one song she can travel through a whole relationship, an entire adolescence or zoom into a specific moment in which she’s able to open a world that shows the listener the complexities of the human experience. It’s this poetic skill that has always set her above so many others in contemporary music. While many worried that her talent had diminished in her extended hiatus from the music business, Ithaca and its accompanying tour asserts exactly the opposite. Rather, they signal a profound shift in Cole’s career toward redefining her craft—avoiding obsolescence through a focus on writing and performing with renewed vigor and emotional maturity that segues nicely from her soul-searching 90s career. 
San Francisco’s Yoshi’s is the perfect venue to rekindle interest in Cole’s music, as the intimacy of the jazz club provides greater access for fans and removes much of the veneer that marked the VH1 generation pop stars. Her entrance onstage lacked major theatrics, and thankfully so. It seemed warm, casual and unfussy, and was still met with wild applause from the audience. Launching into “Comin’ Down” (one of the better tracks from 2007’s Courage), Paula Cole immediately set to rest any concerns over the condition of her voice. The octave jumps came off with ease and confidence, her pitch was spot on and she seemed truly comfortable with her delivery. She stood at the front of the stage, backed by drummer Tony Mason and guitarist Mark Goldenberg, swaying in time and belting out when appropriate. Next was the classic Harbinger track “Watch the Woman’s Hands,” an interesting choice as second song of the set, as it’s not a very high energy song, but it certainly showcases Cole’s voice excellently. She followed up with her new single, “Music in Me.” On the record, the song matches electronic drum sounds with a sinister electric guitar that bursts forth with vigor in the chorus. Its live transformation into acoustic power-pop belter worked surprisingly well, losing none of the charisma and muscle of its studio counterpart. In fact, Cole’s commanding vocals propelled the song with such a charged intensity that it left the audience breathless, reminding those wary of her newer music that she can still write songs with passion comparable (if not stronger) to her 90s output. 
At this point, Cole began playing piano, where she remained for the rest of the main set. Following up “Music in Me” was “Mississippi,” her first song of the evening from 1996’s hugely successful albumThis Fire. There is a concert version of “Mississippi” released on one of the Lilith Fair live compilations from the late 90s, and it remains hands-down the definitive version of this song on record; however, her performance at Yoshi’s sincerely rivaled it. The guttural growls, piercing high notes and rolling piano lines were executed with precision and force. It was a moment of pure catharsis, occupying a space of uninhibited ferocity. Moving between the vitriolic chorus and the fragile bridge where she pleads for the great river to swallow her in its might as an act of absolution, Cole took the audience on a five-minute ride of relentless emotional liberation. 
The next two songs came from her criminally-underappreciated 1999 album Amen. “I Believe in Love” was stripped down from its massive studio self into a restrained, gorgeous acoustic incarnation that still retained the sexiness of the original. “Amen” followed, a song as much about spirituality as existentialism, and as much about popular culture as introspection. The live version is fairly faithful to the recording, yet it was a welcome addition to the set. She then dug back into Harbinger for “Happy Home,” a deeply personal song that she admitted caused a major rift between her and her mother when it was released. There was a maturity and world-weariness that came through when she played this song, as certainly the journey through motherhood has brought her new perspective to parent/child conflicts. 

“Hush, Hush, Hush” was a surprise addition to the setlist, as it’s one she rarely performs. It’s a profoundly affecting ballad about a young man dying of AIDS. With San Francisco’s well-known history with HIV/AIDS and its ensuing devastation in the gay community, the choice to perform “Hush, Hush, Hush” was especially poignant. The audience was enrapt the entire time, being careful to not even rattle the ice in their cups for fear of making too much noise and thus breaking the magic of the moment. She then launched into “Tiger,” the first track from This Fire. A big contrast from the previous song, “Tiger” fluctuates between vulnerable, soft solo piano and big, brawny, aggressive rock. Cole attacked the vocals with confidence and force, driving the song forward with her soprano yelps and growls. 

“Sex,” a lengthy but sensual jazz song from Ithaca followed, displaying Cole’s vocal restraint and range. Her decision to only include two songs from her latest album was regrettable, as while “Sex” adds diversity to the sound of the show, there are excellent songs she skipped, like “Come on Inside,” “Elegy” and “Something I’ve Gotta Say.” It was odd to only hear “Sex” and “Music in Me,” as the tour was ostensibly supporting Ithaca. She then closed the main set with one of her bigger hits, “Me,” slowing the song down a bit to focus on the lyrics. Her delivery vacillated between positive self-expression and exposed fragility. Whereas the song can often can buried under its catchy piano riff and melody, the stripped down version allowed Cole to explore the many sides of the song, asserting the multi-faceted reality of introspection. Rather than simply be an all-out song about empowerment, “Me” touches on the moments of fear and self-destruction that accompany confidence, and her performance truly matched the complex nature of the song. 

She returned after a brief departure to perform a hit-filled encore set, diving right into a piano-driven sing-a-long of her hugely popular “I Don’t Want to Wait.” There were hints of melancholy, though, that permeated, reminding the audience that the song is not simply a nostalgic trip back to the seeming ease and carelessness of the 90s via Dawson’s Creek, but rather about our lifelong struggle to gain happiness and love in the face of adversity and pain. Cole then left the piano as Mason lay a driving beat and Goldenberg strummed a minor bar chord to open up her other signature single “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” The audience erupted with jeers and applause as soon as they recognized “Cowboys,” with many clapping in time and singing along. Cole injected a slight bit of menace into her singing of the verses, which highlighted the implicit resentment between the subject and protagonist of the song. It worked incredibly well, as her performance avoided being reflective and instead was urgent, fresh and invigorated. She then ended with a mind-blowing cover version of Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene.” Cole began hushed and reserved, giving off almost a disconnected reticence, which then morphed and transformed as the music grew louder and more intense. Goldenberg exploded into an inspired guitar solo, wailing on his acoustic and finger-picking like a madman to match the fury of the song. When it seemed it couldn’t get better, Cole set off into a beat-boxing frenzy, something totally unexpected and staggeringly effective. 

After two hours of pouring her heart out for the hundreds of fans who came to see her continue her journey of a second career, Paula Cole got joyfully lost in the outro of “Jolene,” using her vocal prowess to descend into a space of energy, catharsis and passion. She signaled not only a return to form but a step forward into uncharted artistic territory that hopefully will yield many great things. If anyone worried for a moment whether she still could be as good as she was ten years ago, they soon realized their folly. Paula Cole still has it: in spades. 

Comin’ Down, Watch the Woman’s Hands, Music in Me, Mississippi, I Believe in Love, Amen, Happy Home, Hush, Hush, Hush, Tiger (replaced Waiting on a Miracle), Sex Me

I Don’t Want to Wait, Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?, Jolene (Dolly Parton cover)