Thursday, April 25, 2013

Album Review: Paula Cole - Raven

Album Rating: B+
Listening to Raven is like taking out an old family album from the attic and blowing the dust off: those Kodak images may be long gone, but there's still something in them that makes you come back time after time. Likewise, the temptation to look at singer-songwriter Paula Cole's latest through rosy lenses is strong. After all, she's best known for writing the theme song of Dawson’s Creek, a show that is best known today for spawning James VanDerBeek’s crying face. Meanwhile, the last time we saw a singer-songwriter go as huge as Cole did in her time was when "Call Me Maybe" inspired college sports teams across America to show how witty and original they could be (which is to say, not very).

With all of that in mind, Cole has an uphill battle to fight. It’s a testament to her insight and perspective, though, that even when it sounds straight out of 1993, Raven brims with wisdom for modern times. Even as Cole derives much of her material from her personal experience, she frames it through the lens of a history that's just as relevant today as it was in her youth.

Granted, that history’s not always right there in front of us. Opener “Life Goes On” begins pleasantly enough, with Cole on her lonesome with her guitar as she traces the beginning of her family, but from the beginning it’s clearly an autobiography: the way she namedrops Ithaca, New York is a blunt take-it-or-leave-it gesture. It takes until the end of the track for her to ease herself into a more expansive mindset, still recognizably hers but tied into themes and stories larger than her own life: “Around, around, around we go,” the chorus offers, building the momentum necessary to carry listeners beyond Ithaca. Follow-up “Strong Beautiful Woman” has a title even Beyonce would roll her eyes at, but Cole avoids the pitfalls of dropping anvils on her audience by making the song less about an axe to grind and more about the story of a family: her grandmother, her mother, her, and the line of women that’ll come after her. There’s a balance of worlds on Raven—the smaller bubbles we live in and the big round ball that carries all of us—and Cole’s approach does justice to both, summing them up with one well-placed maxim in “Strong Beautiful Woman”: don’t let the world let you down.

Musically, Cole’s greatest asset may be the character of her voice. Throughout Raven, it takes on a variety of different textures, moods, and tones, allowing her to adopt a variety of perspectives. Her voice floats softly over “Eloise,” an understated tale of a relationship soured by infidelity, but brings an elegiac beauty to the sobering “Sorrow On The Hudson.” Both songs are about relationships gone south, but one provides space for reflection while the other provokes raw emotion. One of her finest performances is on the seductive but ominous “Billy Joe,” her damaged appeal to an equally damaged lover. She begins at the volume of a whisper, but the last two minutes are all her as she rambles on and on, trying to make some sense out of the turmoil, and she absolutely sinks her teeth into the character.

The other two pillars of Raven are Cole’s instrumentation and songwriting. When it comes to instrumentation, Cole’s firmly rooted in the country-rock tradition, relying on very little other than her guitar, her piano, and an abundance of gospel vocals. Considering the dominance of electronics and more modern instrumentation in recent years, it’s almost refreshing to see somebody sticking to her guns. That said, if Cole’s sound is old-school, her songwriting’s anything but. “Scream” is a delightful, promising subversion of easy female rage, a wisp of a track that’s all the more cathartic for how much it holds back. The song defies its title, preferring pastoral percussion and playful rising melodies in the background to explicit emotional release. “You cannot hear me scream,” Cole warns softly, but as it turns out, she has plenty of other ways to get her point across. “Secretary” is almost as good, Cole’s weighted performance and the sparseness of the guitar pointing to incredible tension simmering beneath the sinister melodies—unfortunately, the song’s climactic chorus is dampened by murky production values, but its structure stands strong.

Raven isn’t a masterpiece, nor is it an album made for everybody. Cole’s longer tracks tend to drag their heels a bit, the production values often let the instruments melt into each other (occasionally a good quality but occasionally problematic as well), and her work is still very clearly rooted in a place and time that’s not going to speak to everybody. But perhaps closer “Red Corsette” best exemplifies what Cole is trying to do here: it’s just her and the piano as she faces down her demons. “All I have is melody and pain,” she concludes, bound as a human but liberated through the beauty of storytelling. If the pictures found in this scrapbook are any indication, that'll be enough to keep her flame going for a long time.

Track Listing
1. Life Goes On
2. Strong Beautiful Woman
3. Eloise
4. Sorrow On The Hudson
5. Manitoba
6. Scream
7. Imaginary Man
8. Billy Joe
9. Secretary
10. Why Don't You Go
11. Red Corsette

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