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Singer-Singer : Holly Cole, who avoids nostalgia in her latest recording, has penned some tunes but would rather perform the works of others.

April 25, 1998|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a world wall-to-wall with singer-songwriters, vocalist Holly Cole prefers to sing the songs of others. She's been known to write a tune here and there, but she doesn't perform them. Why?

"I'm too picky," she said.

Cole, appearing at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Sunday, applied that pickiness to choosing the material for her fourth Metro Blue/Capitol recording. The collection finds her singing tunes from Lennon-McCartney, Joni Mitchell and some of Cole's emerging singer-songwriter pals. If you're hoping for the kinds of smoky standards and jazz tunes that she included in past recordings, forget it. You'll find no such classics here.

"I'm not very nostalgic," Cole said during a phone interview from Santa Barbara, where her tour stopped this week. "Even though I love a lot of music from past eras, I would never do, say, a tribute to Billie Holiday simply out of nostalgia."

Instead, "Dark Dear Heart" is a decidedly contemporary program of pop-driven material complete with dubs and fuzz guitar. On "All the Pretty Little Horses," new music explorer Jon Hassel adds moody trumpet. "I Told Him That My Dog Wouldn't Run" gets backwoods touches from banjo and bazouki.

Even when the tunes Cole covers date back some 30 years, as with the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face," they're given hip twists. Originally a love-flushed romp with a touch of country-western feel, the song as heard on Cole's album comes at a slacker's tempo backed by a wiry guitar riff, suggesting the dark obsession of stalkers.

"I wanted to slow it down," she explained, "make it groove-oriented but without that old boom-chuckka-boom beat. The vocal is a bit lower than my usual range, with kind of a breathy quality. I like to think that it sounds like the Ronettes from hell."

Cole favors songs that tell a story, songs that reveal something of personality. Her previous album, one with no nostalgia involved, was a gathering of tunes from noted storyteller and observer of humanity Tom Waits, someone Cole has declared a hero.

"When I did that recording, Waits was a contemporary and not so generally well known," she said. "And I really like his songs."

But just choosing material wisely isn't enough. Cole marks all she does with a cool, consciously coy voice that seems especially attractive to men, or so suggests a story in April's Esquire magazine.

While her practice of shedding a different light on pop hits has brought comparisons to Cassandra Wilson (known for turning the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville" into a dark ballad), Cole's voice is something else again. She engages listeners with a cool detachment and subtle shades of tone and phrasing, inviting familiarity with a certain loopiness.

One thing she doesn't do is resort to stylistic tricks or vocal acrobatics. Cole sings directly and with a minimum of embel lishment. She imparts a certain amount of drama but mostly lets the lyrics speak for themselves. She disdains the current crop of acrobatic stylists who swoop and soar around a lyric without really capturing it (in another interview she described the approach as "Top Gun" singing).

"It's like, 'here's a nice line to sing,' " she said. " 'Now I'm going to sing it faster. Now I'm going to sing it higher and faster.' They forget about the words."

Just what kind of singer she is--her work touches pop, alternative, lounge, jazz and cabaret categories--is something that Cole said doesn't concern her much. But a singer-songwriter she's not. At least not yet.

* Holly Cole, Chris Still and Brook Ramel play Sunday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $13.50. (949) 496-8930.

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