Paula Cole
This Fire
(Imago/Warner)


Cole's sophomore effort is a study in maturity of songwriting and emotion only hinted at by her 1994 debut album Harbinger.

This Fire opens with a declaration of freedom in "Tiger," which simply bleeds honesty and pain as Cole asks: "Where do I put this fire?/This bright red feeling?/This tiger lily down my mouth/it wants to grow to 20 feet tall."

Later in the same song she announces her declaration of personal change: "I've left Bethlehem/I feel free/I've left the girl I was supposed to be...I'm so tired of being shy/I'm not that girl anymore...I can finally be a teenager at age 26."

It's the kind of lyric that can bog a lesser artist down in melodramatic melancholy and recalls Tori Amos' similarly successful "Girl" in theme. Cole carries it off by opening with an Amos-style piano and a Sarah McLaughlin vocal poignancy before the snare drums kick in and she belts a chorus quavering with nervous, but heartfelt conviction.

That same self-analysis plays to good effect in "Me," later in the album, as Cole admits (as so many of us should to ourselves) that she is her own worst enemy:

"It's me who is my enemy
me who beats me up
me who makes the monsters
me who strips my confidence
and it's me who's too shy to ask for the thing I love."

Fans of Amos and/or McLaughlin should discover Cole, not because she's a clone of theirs, but a similar touchstone: she shares their strength of character and musical adventurousness. And she truly has a uniquely individual songwriting voice. In "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?" Cole whispers verses that detail the decline of a marriage atop the smack of a live drum before slipping into a smooth, sad wish of a chorus: "Where is my John Wayne/Where is my prairie sun/where is my happy ending/where have all the cowboys gone?"

Several songs on This Fire echo the strains of relationships gone sour. In "Throwing Stones," as a bass-somber piano rides a steady, staccato groove and the guitars and drums slam behind, she cries out "You call me a bitch in heat and I call you a liar/we'll throw stones until we're dead...I wanna be away from here."

"Mississippi" is another deceptively quiet moment that comes up powerfully haunting with a pound of emotion and a particularly memorable lyric: "I've got a piece of my heart on the sole of your shoe."

In the charming piano and bass drum lullabye "Carmen," she sings wistfully of the past. And in "Road To Dead," a rhythm fest that echoes McLaughlin in its serious lyrics but danceable beat, she again sings of independence.

In one of the album's quietest and most affecting hymns, Cole and her piano are helped out by a sad flute and a powerful guest vocalist: Peter Gabriel. His distinctive pipes threaten to overpower the otherwise "you can hear a pin drop in the silences" song, but ultimately, the song still triumphs in its understatement.

This is a powerful album; one of those vital creatures of songwriting that grows in strength with every listen. It's definitely one of the best albums of 1996.

 

The Rutles
Archaeology
(Virgin)


You know this was timed to capitalize on the recent Beatles interest resurgence and released to hit at the same time as The Beatles' third and final Anthology installment. The Rutles have returned after an 18-year absence with Archaeology, a collection of spoofs of Beatles songs that includes a couple songs not originally released from the original Rutles sessions. Actually, though, this collection is not as silly as the original Rutles outing a couple decades ago when Monty Python's Eric Idle had a hand in things and the band produced an album with songs like "Ouch!" and "Piggy In The Middle" and a video documentary called All You Need Is Cash (both of which are now being reissued by Rhino Records). But there are still moments. Mostly moments when Beatle fans will laugh at just how close The Rutles come to ripping off a Beatles riff and then take a U-turn.

Probably the best "can you name what Beatles track they stole that from?" song is "Shangri-La" which includes soundalike bits of "Day In The Life," "Hey Jude" "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" and "I Am The Walrus," among others (Keep in mind these are not samples of the Beatles songs, but clever almost-Beatles bits).

Lyrically, The Rutles aren't so clever, achieving their humor mainly in a vein of "that's so stupid you have to laugh." Like this one from "Unfinished Words": "I don't like anchovies on top of strawberries and cream...kippers and jam/custard and spam are only the stuff of dreams."

There are plenty of obvious nods: Sergeant Pepper becomes "Major Happy's Up and Coming Once Upon A Good Time Band," "Back In The U.S.S.R." becomes "We've Arrived! (And To Prove It We're Here)" and "When I'm 64" becomes the nostalgic in its own right "Back in '64." It's not hysterical, but Beatles fans should get a kick or two out of it.