"Romantically Helpless" - 2000
"I look at the essence of a song," muses Holly Cole. "If itís a great lyric I often love to slow it down, explore it, dissect it and deconstruct it. I love to take it apart and then put it back together and look at it in an entirely different way. In the process, it often becomes a darker tune. Thatís a huge part of my art form, thatís a huge part of what I do."
The venerable art form that Cole refers to is that of the song interpreter. In pre-rock pop and jazz, singers very rarely wrote their own material. Instead they concentrated on developing their interpretive skills to the level of a fine art coloured by nuances of time, timbre and phrasing, all in the service of getting to the emotional core of the material at hand. Back in those days, such an approach resulted in song stylists as riveting, diverse and idiosyncratic as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. None of these vocal titans were the least bit willing to settle for anything but the finest compositions that mankind was capable of. Consequently, rather than feeling compelled to craft their own material, they drew upon the superior skills of writers such as Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen.
Holly Cole has been staking her own substantive claim to this repertoire for most of the past eleven years. Beginning with her self-produced Christmas Blues EP in November 1989, Cole has charted a career that has included five albums, a couple of anthologies, the aforementioned EP, several television specials and some of the finest and most engaging vocal work in the world of contemporary pop.
Coleís new album, entitled Romantically Helpless, is her most impressive achievement so far, representing a singer of vast gifts at the absolute pinnacle of her art. Working with Grammy-award winning producer Steve Ferrera, Romantically Helpless marries Tin Pan Alley classics such as "Come Fly With Me," "Donít Fence Me In" and "That Old Black Magic" with gems from some of the finest contemporary song writers including Randy Newman ("Ghosts," "Same Girl"), Paul Simon ("One Trick Pony"), Laura Harding ("If I Start to Cry," "Make It Go Away") and Coleís own long-standing band mates, David Piltch ("Romantically Helpless," "Iíll Be Here") and Aaron Davis ("Make It Go Away").
There are a number of things that immediately strike one about the album. In a nutshell, Romantically Helpless is sonically rich, the arrangements are ingenious, the song choices are inspired and Cole is simply masterful.
She credits a large part of the success of the album to working with Steve Ferrera. The two had originally come together when Ferrera
had approached Cole about recording three songs, Sinatraís "Come Fly With Me," Crosbyís "Donít Fence Me In" and Stephen Sondheimís "Loving You" (from the Broadway play Passion), for two film soundtracks he was working on. Ironically, none of the songs ended up in the films they were recorded for but everyone involved was so excited about the results that they decided to continue working together and the tracks became the first three masters of what would eventually be the Romantically Helpless album.
"I loved working with Steve," enthuses Holly, "unbelievably so! He so much understood what my concept was from the get go. It was one of the most perfect and harmonious, organic experiences Iíve ever had with a producer."
Ferrera, whose previous credits include working with Suzanne Vega, Jeff Beck, Julian Cope and Ravi Shankar, was equally enamored of Cole. "Holly phrases like a horn player," stresses Ferrera, "in the tradition of the great singers like Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole who used instrumentalists as their models for phrasing. I noticed that immediately when I heard her sing. The tricky part is that there are a lot of great jazz singers that have great jazz phrasing but they forsake the lyric for the feel of the phrase. Great, great singers like Holly can phrase it like a horn but also never lose the thread of the story and never lose the mood that sheís trying to create lyrically."
Rather than record the album in the standard fashion where band tracks are cut and then the girl singer does her thing on top, Ferrera elected to build the entire record around Hollyís voice from the ground up. To that end, he asked her to initially record a few songs acappella and he then proceeded to craft the instrumental arrangement based on Coleís interpretation of the lyric.
"It was a way for Holly to get around the lyric or story of the song without being influenced by the chord changes or the groove that the drummer might be playing. It was a way for her to find her moment!"
Highlights abound. "Dedicated to the One I Love," a hit for both the Five Royales and the Mamas and Papaís, is radically slowed down and draped in swampy, blues-inflected slide guitar with pianist Davis playing inside of the piano. Over top of that Holly languidly caresses the melody, turning the rather innocent paean to idealized love into a chilling song about stalking! Similarly, Simonís "One Trick Pony" takes on whole new resonances as Cole gets to a subtext Simon may have never known existed. Piltchís "Romantically Helpless," consisting entirely of lines inspired by personal want ads, sees Cole singing the whimsical lyric in a tongue-in-cheek fashion while the instrumental track nods towards early seventies Stevie Wonder and bossa nova. The net result is impossibly engaging!
Hardingís "If I Start to Cry" has smash hit written all over it as Cole phrases the first verse much as Joni Mitchell might before the chorus explodes into a pop anthem deluxe.
One of the more daring moves on the album is the re-recording of Harding and Davisí "Make It Go Away." Previously included on Dark Dear Heart, over the course of dozens of live performances the song morphed into something deeper as Cole began to understand the nuances of the lyric in a different way. The new version is profoundly moving. Rightly so, it has been chosen as the first single to be released from Romantically Helpless.
Understatement and restraint are ultimately the key to Coleís vocal approach throughout the album. She sees this aesthetic as a way of getting at the subtext of a song. "If I can find something out about myself through the power of suggestion, through understatement, through subtext, so that it suggests to anyone in the audience something about themselves, then Iíve done my job." Such a sensibility is rare indeed. It is that of the experienced song interpreter. The musical results are to be treasured.
Already a star in her native Canada and Japan and moderately successful in the United States and throughout much of Europe, the Romantically Helpless album is destined to continue the process of opening both eyes and ears to a singer and band capable of extraordinary richness, versatility and depth. Itís a jewel in a sea of contemporary sonic clutter.
By Rob Bowman