I’m a huge Paula Cole fan as I’ve stated from time to time in this blog, from how I first became a fan to her incredible performing style. Paula’s new album Ballads is a personal ode to her first love, American jazz and folk music. In honor of it’s release, I’d also like to take this opportunity to get a little personal and tell the tale of why Paula is as kind and generous as she is talented and gifted, at least in my gay opinion.
This story starts back at the end of 2012 when my partner and I were heading into our 10th anniversary of being together and trying to figure out a way to commemorate the occasion. We don’t agree on a lot when it comes to music but Paula is one of those rare performers we both enjoy. At the time, Paula announced she was doing a Kickstarter campaign to get her album Raven made. One of the perks in Paula’s campaign was for a “personalized happy birthday melody to you or your named loved one”. My partner and I thought it would be amazing if Paula would be up for singing an anniversary melody for us instead. We emailed asking if she would be willing to do that and in a few days we had our answer, “Of course!”
Flash ahead to 2016, after another successful Kickstarter campaign to get Ballads made, when my partner and I took a trip up to Portland around one of Paula’s shows. Gay marriage had recently become legal and when the time was right, I knew I should be the one to propose and it would have to be in a way that was as special as he is. I got the idea to ask Paula to propose for me at her show, figuring she had nothing better to do between rehearsing for her tour and putting together an album. I once again emailed her but this time I didn’t get a response. Proposals are usually unexpected for the person being proposed to but Paula surprised us both.
Paula’s show was at the Vinegar Hill Music Theater which is a beautifully remodeled barn, in the middle of nowhere Maine, with electric candles and white twinkling lights strung about. Paula came out sounding as magical as ever. A few songs in she talked about the love in the room. She asked if my partner and I were there. I was tongue tied, assuming she hadn’t gotten my email. The second time she asked, I responded, drawing people’s attention including my partners. Paula told him that I wanted to marry him and she went into her song “I Believe In Love”. That night not only did she give my partner the best proposal ever but also something he’s been wanting for years, our new song. Until then our song was “Macarthur Park” by Donna Summer, much to my partner’s chagrin. That night “I Believe In Love” found us and Paula became more than just a performer we follow, she became part of our history.
That brings us to today and the official release of Ballads. As the name suggests, it’s an album of ballads, which I’m a sucker for. Give me an old school slow jam any day. Ballads is the type of album you can put on in the background and then unexpectedly find yourself swaying to it’s mellow vibe. The twenty songs trade off between jazz and folk music.The majority of the jazz songs (“Body And Soul”, “Nice Work If You Can Get It”, “I Cover The Waterfront”, etc.) sound like something you would have heard back in the day from a three piece band in the lobby of a ritzy hotel. Paula gets torchy on “You’ve Changed”, flirty on “What A Little Moonlight Can Do”, and old soft shoe on “I’m Old Fashioned”. On the song “Naima” there are no lyrics, or maybe she forgot them, and she just “oohs” her way through the song.
The folk songs on Ballads are most similar to Paula’s usual sound and her voice is as strong as it’s ever been. “The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll” and “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown” could easily be outtakes from Paula’s previous albums Ithaca or 7. “I Wish (I Knew How It Feels To Be Free)” has a folksy gospel sound, the only thing missing is a church choir backing her. My favorite song on the album is “Ode To Billy Joe”. I just want to put this song on, load Barbara Eden and Fannie Flagg into the station wagon, and drive over to the Harper Valley PTA bake sale.
Ballads is an album that I shouldn’t like for a few reasons: #1: I’m not a fan of jazz. I don’t even like jazz hands. #2: I don’t like cover albums because I prefer hearing what my divas want to sing in their own words. I have heard other artists cover “God Bless The Child”, “Skylark” and “Blue Moon” before Paula but I have never heard the originals. Ballads may be a cover album but it’s new music to me. #3: I cringe when a diva decides to branch out in a new style of music. Luckily Paula’s voice and style have always touched on folk and jazz so it’s not too far of a stretch and they are a perfect fit. After all is said and done, with a couple listens of the whole album under my belt, I’m surprised just how much I like Ballads. Paula can do no wrong in my ears.