Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Since returning to music in 2007 after a self-imposed hiatus, Massachusetts-native Paula Cole made a pair of respectable discs for the resurrected Decca label before deciding to brave the indie waters with Raven, a kickstarter-funded project out this week on her own 675 Records.
The new eleven-song cycle is easily her most comfortable and self-assured release to date, though it harkens back to her 1994 debut, Harbinger and its watershed follow-up, This Fire. The latter disc won her a Grammy and placed her front-and-center during the late-90’s Lilith Fair boom, but Cole has always resonated more like a career artist than a festival sensation, and the association may not have served her creative intentions as well as it seemed at the time.
Both Courage (2007) and Ithaca (2010) have moments of greatness, but neither collection has the fully realized feel of Raven, which Cole recorded mainly between her Beverly, Mass. home and a converted New England barn over the last third of 2012. It would seem that by removing all the middlemen, she has set herself free to create something that feels entirely earthy, organic and heartfelt.
The set opens with a tale of family that plays on universal truths; “Life Goes On” comes across like a full-circle answer to “Happy Home,” from Harbinger. Both songs document the struggles, sacrifices and unresolved family resentments that can take a lifetime to heal, but whereas the former seemed to mock the idyllic concept of a happy home, “Life Goes On” swells with genuine feelings of love and reconciliation. Its soft, folk-pop cushioning paves the way for “Strong, Beautiful Woman,” a multi-generational feminine empowerment pep-talk, which also serves as an excellent vehicle for the blue-eyed soul that Cole explored on 1999’s Amen.
If there’s a dilemma looming over Raven, perhaps it involves finding an effective and appropriate way to articulate rage as a forty-something woman who’s survived some hard knocks. A wonderful unselfconsciousness pervades these songs, but you do occasionally get the distinct impression that Cole has learned to place a higher value on restraint, though she seems to sometimes miss the more outspoken, reactionary version of herself – something she explores in “Scream.” The payoff on tunes that burst open, like “Manitoba” and “Imaginary Man” (curiously, both resurrected songs that spent many years tucked away) is that much greater, as she lets her far-flung wail pierce the surface multiple times. In contrast, much of the single, “Eloise,” is sung at a lower register (from a male perspective), but at the chorus she shifts to a delicate whisper, magnifying the protagonist’s pleas for forgiveness more convincingly while the rhythm chugs along like an ambling locomotive, in no particular hurry.
With its deeply melancholic piano refrain (think Joni Mitchell), “Sorrow-on-the-Hudson” chronicles the dissolution of a marriage and the ensuing loneliness of living in a house originally purchased for two… feelings Cole has likely wrestled with, having finally settled her divorce five years ago. “Billy Joe” and “Secretary” both profit from a more menacing, libidinous grind as she paints two very different portraits of costly lust. The latter makes an uncanny companion to the James Spader/Maggie Gyllenhaal flick of the same name.
Throughout, the chosen production value is tasteful and safe without succumbing to boring clichés. Instead, Cole and her players – co-producer/drummer Ben Wittman, guitarist Kevin Barry and bassist Tony Levin – have struck an elusive balance that serves the songs well with unobtrusive polish. The beauty of Raven lies mainly in its great ease. It’s very clear that Cole – a Berklee College of Music grad – wasn’t looking to show off or reinvent the wheel, but rather just to find the best possible delivery for these extremely engaging vignettes. As listeners, what more could we really ask of her?