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MUSIC | ON THE RECORD

A comeback 8 years in the making

Paula Cole's first release since 1999 is a profile in `Courage,' an album that looks forward, not back.

June 22, 2007|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

Needless to say, the Paula Cole who, at 39, has just released "Courage" is a different person than the one whose last album came out in 1999, a time she'd won legions of fans with her hits "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone" and the "Dawson's Creek" theme "I Don't Want to Wait" and collected a best new artist Grammy Award.

It's a positive change. The at-times overreaching art-pop of her earlier work has been replaced with the earthy sophistication of producer Bobby Colomby's settings -- from spare singer-songwriter approaches evoking early Joni Mitchell ("El Greco") to full-on orchestral jazz balladry ("Lonelytown") -- with Cole showing herself to be a singer of substance and range.

The lyrics too reveal an artist growing and seeking, but centered, with themes of security, assuredness and, yes, courage recurring from the opening plea for strength and acceptance in "Comin' Down" to the romantic mission statement "14" to the enraptured "Safe in Your Arms."

And there's no agenda obscuring the art -- no bitterness or resentment, no points to prove other than that she's renewed and has something worthwhile to offer upon returning to the career she walked away from eight years ago.

"I was working on a career furiously for seven straight years and felt increasingly estranged from my family and close friends," Cole explains. "I wanted to have a child, wanted to share my life with someone, move into more meaningful aspects of life. So I had to shed the old skin, and that was the old career and persona."

It wasn't all clear sailing: Her daughter, Sky, now 5, has severe asthma, which requires Cole's constant vigilance. Her marriage to Moroccan musician Hassan Hakmoun fell apart, and only gradually, with coaxing from longtime friend Colomby, did she return to music, first in guest appearances on recordings by artists including trumpeter Chris Botti, then to her own songs.

Colomby enlisted some prominent guests on the new album, including jazz great Herbie Hancock and producer David Foster on piano, as well as Brazilian singer Ivan Lins and the Blue Nile's Paul Buchanan on duet showcases, but none overshadows Cole. It all reflects the process of becoming comfortable with herself, she says.

"In a way, I've been born again, and I wasn't afraid and was doing it for the right reason," she says. "I'm not thinking about radio and hits, but the music. ... It was a very hard time of my life, but [the album is] not angry. Just gentle."

And of the first step of her new career path, she says, "This will be a marathon, not a sprint. I have a daughter to raise and a personal life to lead. It has to be braided harmoniously."

On the Record is an occasional feature incorporating artists' comments with critical assessments of noteworthy new works.

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Paula Cole

"Courage" (Decca Records)

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