Singers Paula Cole and Patty Waters both took long career breaks but came back as strong as ever. William Dart reviews their latest albums.
Was there ever a more powerful survival anthem than this Stephen Sondheim song?
This is ‘I’m Still Here’ sung by the late Yvonne de Carlo. She launched it, playing Carlotta Campion in the original 1971 Broadway production of the musical Follies.
Since then it’s been prime repertoire for the likes of Barbra Streisand, Shirley Bassey, Elaine Page . . . and who could forget Shirley MacLaine taking it on in the 1990 movie Postcards from the Edge, playing the mother from Hell and mortifying screen daughter Meryl Streep by turning the song into a piano top ego trip.
Sometimes, however, one has to remember that there are artists working today who may not enjoy a worldwide media profile but who are still part of the musical fabric. They are busy and content to cultivate their individual musical gardens, giving pleasure to followers and fans.
Artists like Paula Cole, an American singer-songwriter who made her debut in 1994 with an album that came with a propitious title — Harbinger.
At the time I was pretty intensely taken by one particular song from the collection — partly for its very individual percussion. Jay Bellorose plays what’s described as cocktail kit while Cole herself takes care of mouth percussion.
‘Watch the Woman’s Hands’ is remarkably tough, for all its surface prettiness. In its second verse, the woman’s hands turn from holding her child to being clenched with frustration and anger at a man talking down to her.
Cole’s second album This Fire had more traction than Harbinger, which became rather lost in record company shuffles. The new release even had some chart success and a Grammy nomination in this style-roving ballad, ‘Where have all the Cowboys Gone’.
I was lucky enough at the time, back in 1996, to pick up a single of ‘Where have all the Cowboys Gone’. One of those strange cardboard-jacketed releases offering a series of additional mixes of the song, exotically credited, and taking the music quite a long away from Cole’s original.
The last, titled ‘E-Team Saxuality Mix’, toys with the sounds for almost a minute until a discernible song-shape looms on the horizon. To describe it as a transformation would be understatement.
Putting such 90s excesses aside, This Fire was as impressive an album as it was ambitious. Some songs such as ‘Carmen’ and ‘Nietzsche’s Eyes’ might sag and strain under the cultural significance loaded onto them, but others get their message across just as effectively as they did 23 years ago.
One is the harrowing lullaby, ‘Hush, Hush Hush’, which portrays a young man dying of AIDS in his father’s arms. Seamus Egan is on tin whistle and, joining in for the second verse ... English singer Peter Gabriel.
In the wake of her third album, Amen, in 1999, Paula Cole drifted out of my life. In fact, she deliberately took time out for child-rearing and non-musical activities, describing it later as looking for authenticity in her life.
Her 2007 comeback album, Courage, was very much based on the life moves she’d made. After all, she told us, the courage of its title was very much a mantra for the singer, with the word itself occurring in every one of the CD’s songs.
Yet, in a year that found me discovering the new music of Feist and rediscovering Peggy Seeger and Bettye LaVette, Courage passed me by.
I felt somewhat chastised when I caught up with Paula Cole two years ago. Pre-empting more recent covers albums by Rickie Lee Jones and Chrissy Hynde, she came out a collection of 20 familiar songs titled Ballads.
Jazzy takes on Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael were smooth without being slick. But was a cabaret waltz really the right tactic with Bob Dylan’s ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, complete with snatches of Satie between the verses?
Paula Cole’s latest album takes a more trenchant stand ... or does it?
With the title Revolution, could one expect anything less? She certainly sets it up as that in the opening track. There’s a rich mix here. Pianist Bob Thompson recites Martin Luther King’s ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech against militaristic flourishes and we wait a while for Cole to come in with the mantra du jour — in this case the phrase, “Revolution is a state of mind.”
And in case you’re wondering who’s giving out those splendidly possessed howls in the background, it’s none other Nona Hendryx, last saluted on this programme in 2017 as a woman with the courage to sing Beefheart.
But do listen carefully to the Martin Luther King speech and consider how thoughtful, sincere, incisive, and beautifully turned it is. Put it alongside the rants and raves on the American political front today and there’s real cause for despair.
73-year-old Patty Waters was just 20 when she made her startling debut in 1965 on ESP Records, the legendary label which hosted artists from The Fugs and Pearls before Swine to radical jazzmen, Sun Ra and Albert Ayler.
Her first album went far beyond its literal title, Patty Waters Sings. Especially in a 14-minute journey through the traditional ballad, ‘Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair’ that’s no hootenanny singalong. Rather, it’s a searing and vocally explorative politicization of a seemingly innocuous love song, starting off, almost hesitantly, word by word, against Burton Greene under the lid of his piano.
Eventually, something akin to a Katrina-force vocal storm brews up and lets loose. The trip to it is inexorable and brilliantly sustained, its impact visceral.
This performance is one of the classics of its decade. At the time, the Village Voice critic and poet Herbert Weinstein suggested that we hear this voice with the “ears of wolves”, praising Waters as transcending virtuoso vocalizing to present Shamanic ritual.
Yet, for all the praise dealt out to her first two landmark albums, Waters, like Paula Cole, took time out for family issues and we waited until 1996 — that’s thirty years — to be granted an extraordinary collection of standards titled Love Songs.
Ballads from ‘Mood Indigo’ and ‘Nature Boy’ to ‘Summertime’ and ‘Don’t Explain’ were just four on the song-list and the fragile-voiced Waters tackled Gershwin’s ‘Someone to Watch over Me’ with a mesmerizing Jessica Williams on piano.
A new Patty Waters album, totally unexpected, is a cause for celebration.
Patty Waters Live gives us a New York concert caught just last year with longtime collaborators, Burton Greene on piano, Mario Pavone on bass and Barry Altschul on percussion.
It’s impossible to catch the range of this set but it’s pretty fair to say this Hank Williams country waltz has never had a more chilling rendition.
'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
'I'm Still Here' (Sondheim) – Yvonne De Carlo
Follies (Original Broadway Cast)
'Watch The Woman's Hands' (Cole) – Paula Cole
'Where Have All The Cowboys Gone' (Cole) – Paula Cole
'Where Have All The Cowboys Gone (E-Team Saxuality Mix)' (Cole) – Paula Cole
Where Have All The Cowboys Gone, Single
'Hush, Hush, Hush' (Cole) – Paula Cole
'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll' (Dylan) – Paula Cole
'Intro: Revolution' (Cole) – Paula Cole
'Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair' (Trad) – Patty Waters
'Someone to Watch Over Me' (Gershwin) – Patty Waters, Jessica Williams
Patty Waters: Love Songs
'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry' (Williams) – Patty Waters