Spend The “Night” With Holly Cole

Posted on by Mike Quinn

Holly Cole "Night", 2012

Holly Cole is a bit like really good bleu cheese: you either LOVE her, or you can’t stand her. At least that has been my experience. Yet that same experience has shown me that, with time, even those who have consistently turned their nose up at the mention of Cole’s name, as many do with a pungent bleu, often find themselves evolving their taste buds, eventually becoming stalwart fans of this somewhat mysterious Canadian vocalist.

For my part, I can say that I’ve been in the LOVE Camp since I first heard Cole’s Blame It On My Youth CD in the early ‘90s, while her magnificent Tom Waits tribute, Temptation, sealed my fate as a Holly Cole devotee and gave me a far better understanding of Waits’ music than I ever got from his own recordings. I’ve derived countless hours of pleasure listening to Holly Cole over the last twenty or so years, and, unlike with that bleu stuff, have never required a single cracker to experience bliss!

Holly Cole "Temptation" CD, 1995

Cole has a distinctive vocal style. Her approach to specific pitches often seems to be wrong, like she’s coming at them from the wrong side, so to speak. She seems to slide into a pitch instead of just hitting it. Here phrasing is her own. And the quality of her voice is somehow outside the normal—smokier, richer. A bit elusive such that I don’t really know how to describe it. Make no mistake—she has a strong voice, a powerful voice and her intonation is spot on. She somehow makes any tune, from any genre, her own—everything she sings is transformed into a Holly Cole Song, totally her own and totally unlike any other singer’s version. She adds a certain flavor to every melody she grabs. And it is a flavor many of us savor with an insatiable hunger.

Yes, Holly Cole is like the best bleu cheese: rare, piquant and delicious. Once you get the taste for this delicacy, it is hard to satisfy, one is always wanting more.

Holly Cole "Steal The Night" CD/DVD, 2012

This year is a bountiful one for Cole’s fan base, maybe she’s trying to make up for a five-year absence: In February she released a delightful live CD/DVD combo, Steal The Night, recorded with her working band. In July she released her newest studio disc in Japan, Night, which came out a few weeks later on vinyl and CD in Germany. The following comments refer to these German releases. She is promising a Canadian release date of November 19, 2012, but we’ll believe it when we see it. Still no US release date announced; will there even be one? Doesn’t matter, except for pricing, all of these are or will be available from Amazon.com— here’s a link: http://amzn.to/SRzLIW  (buying via our link helps pay the rent on this website!)

Night is a rather unusual mix of mostly late ‘60s and early ‘70s tunes, many sourced from film soundtracks such as “You Only Live Twice”, “Walk Away,” “I Only Have Eyes For You,” and, believe it or not, “Viva Las Vegas”. I have to admit, when I first heard her running through the Elvis-ploitation tune “Viva Las Vegas”, I was a bit disappointed. It’s not the greatest song ever written, not even close. But after repeated listenings, Cole’s mannered interpretation has begun to grow on me. Yeah, I can even say I like it quite a bit now, in spite of its association with the sappy Elvis flick. (The Japanese CD version of Night also includes the title song from the Sinatra film The Tender Trap. Can’t wait to hear that one!)

The disc was produced by Greg Cohen who likewise produced Cole’s previous studio effort, 2007’s Holly Cole, which was a charming, compelling venture, even upon first listening. Night was a slow burn for me. But once that smoldering fuse reached its end, the music exploded in typical Holly Cole fashion. Now, like a thirsty Dracula clone, I just can’t get enough Night-time!

The “essential” musicians on this disc include the original members of the Holly Cole Trio, pianist Aaron Davis and bassist David Piltch, augmented by new band members Davide DiRenzo on drums and John Johnson on reeds. Additional guests include Marc Rogers on bass, Cyro Baptista, percussion, Kevin Briet, guitars, plus Kevin Turcotte and William Carn on various horns. The ensemble never fails to provide Cole with backing that is perfectly paced, punchy and delightfully colored—a lush, impressionistic canvas to be sure.

Holly Cole with Drummer Davide DiRenzo

Cole’s attraction to the songs of Tom Waits has been clear from her early records, and she returns to that overflowing well of musical delights on Night. In fact, the two Waits compositions “Walk Away” and “Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard’, along with her own “You’ve Got A Secret” are, in my opinion, the disc’s strongest. On “Walk Away,” originally written for the film Dead Man Walking, Cole finds the melody Waits only implies in his versions of the tune, something her vocal instrument seems more capable of discovering than Waits’ own rather limited range. In addition the arrangement, in part  because of the use of male background singers, harkens to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama’s rendition of certain Waits tunes. Wonder if that was intentional? So it’s no surprise that Cole’s sole self-penned tune, “You’ve Got A Secret,” owes its underlying feel and atmosphere to Waits, at least to her own patented “Waits-by-Cole” persona…spare, clean and dramatic. Gotta love the punctuating clarinet riffs. Absolutely tasty!

Hearing “Viva Las Vegas,” as stated earlier, was a shock at first, but perhaps the most startling selection—not for its garishness, but by the novelty of any other singer but its composer offering up a rendition—is “Love Lies” composed by none other than Captain Beefheart! Now, as much as I’ve appreciated the Captain over the years—since 1969 or so—I must say that, as with her Tom Waits tunes, Holly Cole manages to connect the dots in the song’s melody, even filling in a few missing points that just makes the Captain’s work more musical, at least to my ears. Selecting this song took enormous hutzpah, I mean, how many singers, much less jazz singers, would have the vision to translate the zig-zag music of the late, great Captain Beefheart? Once again, kudos to Cole for that courage.

Holly Cole "Blame It On My Youth" CD, 1992

And so, maybe it was that self-same courage that allowed her to consider recording the rather kitschy “Viva Las Vegas.” Cole ventures where other singers fear to tread, not just in her repertoire, but most fundamentally, in her vocal stylings. By doing so, guaranteeing her a place in a rarified strata of jazz performers.

Night will ultimately take its place near the top of the heap of Holly Cole releases. It may take a few spins before you totally warm up to it, but ultimately, it will get under your skin, drawing you into its magic. And it will keep calling you back for more and more and more.

Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait five more years before her next release.

A note on the recording itself: Audiophiles will attest that Cole has long offered some of the best recordings on the market, and a stroll through any high-end audio trade show will inevitably result in a flood of Cole recordings being used as demonstration discs. They are that good. Luckily, the German company Tradition & Moderne has chosen to release this and Holly Cole (the 2007 disc) on vinyl. To prepare for this review, I have been comparing Night on CD and LP and, predictably, am more satisfied with the latter version. It’s just more open, more natural sounding. And it seems the LP allows more of the subtle details to come forward. For example, on “You’ve Got a Secret” Cole double tracks her voice on certain verses and the effect is much more obvious on the LP than the CD; you can actually pick out the two separate but nearly identical voices. Nice.

But rest assured, the sound of the CD is still pleasing, with Cole’s voice placed prominently front and center with lots of umph and drive from the all-important bass and piano foundation. Drums are likewise full and woody sounding as they always are on her records, which, considering her penchant for minimal, spare arrangements, is absolutely mandatory, and adds an incredible amount of realism to this and all her discs. You won’t go wrong with either version, but if you can afford it, get both. You won’t be sorry.

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