Plenty Of Icing, But No Cake

DJ Premier guests.

The pressure to follow up a success as massive as Paula Cole's double

platinum recording, This Fire, may have gotten to the

singer/songwriter and keyboardist.

Coming in the wake of This Fire, her third album, Amen,

has none of the fresh idiosyncratic flair of the previous collection's

hit single "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" Nor does it have a song as

appealing and immediate as "I Don't Want to Wait," the bittersweet piano

ballad that became identified as a theme for the teen-skewed WB television

drama, "Dawson's Creek."

You can blame Cole for any shortcomings on Amen, despite its being

released as a band effort with drummer Jay Bellerose and guitarist Kevin

Barry. It was written in its entirety by Cole, who also is listed as the

record's producer.

Not to suggest that there wasn't a conscious attempt to make a commercially

viable project here. It leads off with the single, "I Believe in Love."

It's a string-drenched throwback to Gamble & Huff's Philly-soul sound

with just a touch of lush, Jimmy ("Wichita Lineman") Webb–style

orchestration. Lyrically, it's about as deep as a Mac Davis tune or any

number of those assembly-line R&B ballads that Babyface or R. Kelly crank

out.

Then, you get the title tune (RealAudio

excerpt). At first, the melody and arrangement are engaging. Cole's

greatest asset — her dusky voice with its poignant edge —

glides over gleaming electric and acoustic guitars and a perky drumbeat.

And then the lyrics turn pretentious, as Cole gets into a nonsensical

(zen?) listing of everything from Saddam Hussein and Republican witch-hunts

to Betty Page and the right to die — all given the singer's

benediction.

But Alanis Morissette already did something like this on her song, "Thank

U." Maybe they swapped notes at Lilith Fair.

On "La Tonya," Cole means to depict a tragic inner-city circumstance in

the first person. It may be sweetly sung but it still seems bogus. She's

much more in her element on the empowering relationship number, "Pearl" (RealAudio

excerpt) — until you hear her sing, "Gotta face my Steppenwolf

— gotta drag it through the mud." Yeesh! Nice guitar from Barry,

though.

She's got a hell of a voice, but when you hear it in the service of such

banal lyrics, it seems like a real waste.

"Free" attempts to tap into the bittersweet vibe of "I Don't Want to

Wait." The reed sound that ignites "Suwannee Jo" is intriguing, until

Cole makes her entrance and contrives more dark, urban tale-spinning.

The most unintentionally hilarious moment on the album has to be "Rhythm

of Life" (RealAudio

excerpt), a slow-grooving number that begins with a bit of

scratching from DJ Premier of the rap group Gang Starr. The fun really

starts when Cole does her white-girl rap about "the critics and the cynics

that don't understand the lyrics" and then sings that she "began as Isis

the high priestess."

All hail mighty Paula!