• David Bentley

Non-Nordic Sunday - Paula Cole (USA): ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ (track from recent LP)


This one is a little late; it was released in May as the only track on Paula Cole’s latest album, ‘American Quilt’ which isn’t a cover version.


In my estimation Cole is perhaps the most under-rated female vocalist of all time. Still best known for her 1996 triple Grammy-nominated single ‘Where have all the cowboys gone’ from the album ‘This Fire’ which brought her worldwide acclaim, she is rather more fondly-remembered for her role in Peter Gabriel’s Secret World tour in 1993, a series of shows that have gone down in history as some of the most emotional and dramatically staged ever, as Gabriel’s duet foil.


Her status is enhanced by the fact that she was brought into that tour at extremely short notice by way of a blunt ‘take it or leave it but I have to know now’ voice message left on her phone by Gabriel, when Sinéad O’Connor abruptly stood down from it, flying thousands of miles through the night to Germany at the drop of a hat and with barely any vocal rehearsal, never mind for the complex staging and dance scenes. She went on to turn in repeated performances that rank with the very best there is. Check out for example (there are numerous recently re-mastered videos) her part in the opening song, ‘Come Talk to Me’; the symbolically breathtaking ‘Blood of Eden’; show closer ‘In Your Eyes’; and ‘Don’t Give Up’ which Gabriel originally recorded of course with Kate Bush, but which Cole performed more convincingly, and acting it rather than merely singing it.


You’d think they’d rehearsed these songs for a year, not a matter of a few hours. The chemistry is electric.I’m drawn back to watching the performances over and over again.


Cole should have gone on to worldwide fame but things went wrong in 1999 with her third album, ‘Amen’, which was a departure from her usual style and which bombed in comparison to what had been multi-platinum predecessors. Since then she has written and performed in relative obscurity, ever inventive but better known latterly for a role on the faculty board and as an emeritus scholar of the renowned Berklee College of Music, which is in her home state of Massachusetts.


‘American Quilt’ then is an album of covers, a patchwork of American music and which reflects her desire to manifest the diversity of music she has been exposed to since she was a young child and the daughter of a professional musician, and beginning her musical journey as a jazz singer, hence some of the ‘standards’ on the album which include a low-key performance of Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’.


‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ expands on the ‘quilt’ theme as it refers to the quilts women made that provided clues to slaves in the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century and which were used by enslaved African Americans primarily to escape into free states and Canada. She says, “OK, even though this is not my story to tell, it’s not being told, and I feel like we need more consciousness about our past, who we are.”


The song is prefaced by a section of the Gospel standard ‘Steal Away’, composed by Wallace Willis, a slave, around 1862. It’s about as far away from ‘Where have all the cowboys gone’ and anything she ever did with Gabriel, as you can imagine but it’s also indicative of Cole’s determination never to give up and always to be pushing the envelope. As she says, “I’ve been on four or five major labels and I’ve been an independent artist. I just keep going. Because I worship at the altar of music.”

Paula Cole intends to tour in the US this autumn. Hopefully, if and when Mr Hancock’s successor deems it fit, she’ll be winging her way over here, too.

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