Fire in the Belly

When Paula Cole performs live, the tiny musician sings and plays her piano

as if she's harboring a barely-containable volcano, as if her guts are a

fire that grows with every intake of breath. She pounds the keys, wails,

howls, yearns and purges. Opening for Sarah McLachlan, Cole revealed

herself as a master of songwriting and rhythm, anger and delicacy.

It's difficult for any recording to capture the raw energy of such a

performance, so it's only natural that Cole's second album, This

Fire, might turn out to be a bit of a letdown. Actually, most of her

new songs hint at that inner fire, but others turn out to be a kind of wet

blanket smothering the whole affair.

To its credit, This Fire shows Cole's growth and maturity from her

beginnings with 1994's Harbinger, a sweet, listenable but

underdeveloped work which introduced Cole as a capable vocalist -- and as

a songwriter who needed some more time to grow.

Our introduction to Fire is Cole's a capella voice asking, "Where

do I put this fire? / This bright red feeling / This tigerlily down my

mouth / It wants to grow to twenty feet tall." It is the lead-in to

"Tiger," a song about coming to terms with one's power as an adult and, in

Cole's case, as a woman of strength. However, while the chorus begins as

"I've left the girl I was supposed to be," it later shifts to "Someday

I'll be born."

The song ends with "I am nothing," repeated in Cole's gut-wrenching growl

until the fade-out. It is a powerful, longing and confusing message, like

an adolescent who doesn't know what to do with his newly-long arms or the

strength that lies within them.

"Throwing Stones" is another moment of power in which Cole describes a

tumultuous relationship with a lover: "You call me a bitch in heat / And

I'll call you a liar / And we'll throw stones until we're dead." She

delivers these lines with such force that the listener can't help but

envision fine china flying along with fists and unretractable words. The

piano rumbles through this one like thunder in Cole's stomach as she

sings, her voice angry but always rich and melodic.

After "Stones", "Carmen" is a huge letdown. Cole's voice is sweet and

soothing but completely unaffecting. Likewise, "Nietzche's Eyes" comes off

like pseudointellectualism despite the longing apparent in its piano

melody. The song is crowned again with Cole's growl, but while it works in

"Tiger", here it is grating and repetitive.

Sandwiched between "Carmen" and "Nietzche" (an enviable place to be, come

to think of it) is a delicious Southern-born ballad called "Mississippi"

cello drones like the buzz of faraway insects; a lilt like the coo of an

exotic bird slips between the drumbeats and Cole's sultry vocal. But where

the verses are sweet and bewitching, the chorus blisters in retaliation.

"I've got a little bit of thunder tucked inside of that cloud," she points

out. No kidding.

"hush, hush, hush" is a simple ballad, but unlike the aforementioned duds,

it is a lovely and sympathetic piece touching on the love between a father

and his son, who has AIDS. The delicious surprise comes when Peter

Gabriel's voice takes the third voice, his husky voice perfect

in the role of the father: "Oh maybe next time time you'll be Henry VIII /

Wake up tomorrow in the town of the Great... Oh maybe next time you'll be

given a chance." Gabriel's voice sings the title's line, and Cole's voice

follows, a different pitch but the same affecting timbre.

"I am not the person who is singing," Cole claims in "Me", "I am the

silent one inside." Despite the courage -- and just plain rage -- she

reveals on This Fire it's clear this singer is still trying to

claim a voice to call her own -- one that is steady and sure of itself.

With Cole, it's good to remember that folks who've influenced her work,

like McLachlan and Tori Amos and Peter Gabriel, too had their own awkward

beginnings. This Fire represents Cole's significant growth as a

self-possessed and talented musician. It will be a treat to see what she

does next.