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click to enlarge PAULA COLE CD COVER
  • PAULA COLE CD COVER

The Paula Cole Band
Amen Imago/Warner Bros.

Paula Cole has gotten herself a band, consisting of Jay Bellerose on drums and Kevin Barry on guitars, along with a few erratic appearances by Tony Levin on bass. On first listen, the performances are proficient, but unremarkable, but by the third track, it's clear that's par for the course. Even Cole's voice is strangely unexceptional. She sounds like Paula all right, but there's something missing -- the refinement, the classiness, the richness of This Fire, Cole's last album.

Amen is a collection of mediocrity. The songs -- folkish stories attempting to mirror the distress of daily life -- come off as simple observations from someone who is making assumptions rather than drawing from experience. Whether Cole has actually gone through these street scenes -- murders, child abuse, inner-city poverty -- is not the issue. She just doesn't sound sincere, and that makes the subjects, in turn, seem trivial.

Cole thanks Marvin Gaye in the liner notes for the inspiration to make Amen. His influence can be heard from the first note of the first track, a life-affirming little disco ditty titled "I Believe in Love."

Yes, I said disco -- a 180-degree turn since her last release. Amen is jazzy, funky, mellow and, above all, pop-y. Cole even raps, with a scratching turntable in the background. This works on one song, "Rhythm of Life," but the rest sounds like Tori Amos gone Compton.

click to enlarge FIONA APPLE CD COVER
  • FIONA APPLE CD COVER

This Fire was edgy, like holding your hand over a candle just for the hell of it. It pushed the boundaries. Amen does no such thing. It's commercial, not terrible; it's palatable to all.

Still, it leaves me confused. I thought Paula Cole was a crusader, a poet, a woman with Joan of Arc faith and strength and the tools to express it. Amen left me with a pleasant, slightly bored feeling -- no stirring emotion, no rapture, no uplift. Measured against her previous work, it falls flat.


Fiona Apple
When The Pawn Hits The Conflicts... Clean Slate/Epic
Scheduled release date: Nov. 9

Fiona Apple is like a richly purple, low-necked, floor-length velvet gown -- covering enough to be elegantly genteel, but emitting a subtly curvaceous sexiness that can't go unnoticed. Her extravagantly titled new album is the jewel that adorns the neck of this young singer-songwriter, brilliant and clear.

Like Apple's 1996 debut Tidal, the 10 songs on Pawn are each well-crafted musical excursions, amazing lyrics with a jazzy sense of spontaneity. The song "Paper Bag" is among the more well-written: "I was staring at the sky, just looking for a star/To pray on, or wish on, or something like that/I was having a sweet fix of a daydream of a boy/Whose reality I knew, was a hopeless to be had/But then the dove of hope began its downward slope/And I believed for a moment that my chances/Were approaching to be grabbed/But as it came down near, so did a weary tear/I thought it was a bird, but it was just a paper bag."

Lending itself to Apple's lyrics is the complex instrumentation of this release. Producer Jon Brion (Rufus Wainwright, Aimee Mann) contributes melodies, orchestration and perfect timing, using a diversity of instruments and rhythms to accompany Apple's soulful voice and elegant lyrics.

The result is a sophisticated, near flawless album. Fiona Apple emerges as more than a good singer or songwriter, as an artisan who contributes much more than just a digestible tune to anyone listening.

  • The Independent reviews the newest CDs by Fiona Apple and the Paula Cole Band.

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