David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 42: Holly Cole (I Don't Wanna Grow Up)

June 7, 2020

Cover songs are easy targets. Unless an artist has the ability to make someone else's song his or her own, why bother?  Even more interesting ones are frequently chastised for a kind of laziness: "What? So you couldn't come up with one more original song, so you decide to give us the 559th version of 'Landslide'"?

I have always found it fascinating that female artists are much more likely to release entire albums/CDs of cover songs. Most male artists might stick one or two on a release, but women seem willing to commit to the whole concept fully. In my completely unscientific opinion, it's because women don't have the massive egos that men do, so they are willing to let a whole album recognize other artists as much as themselves.  As a result, we have Annie Lennox's Medusa, Rickie Lee Jones' It's Like This, Tori Amos' Strange Little Girls, and almost the entire Holly Cole catalog.

Cole is a Canadian jazz (since we need a label) singer who made a career in the 1990's mostly covering other people's songs, including Elvis Costello's "Alison" and "Girls Talk," Doris Day’s "Que Sera Sera," Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" and most of the Tom Waits catalog.

O.k., that last statement might be an overstatement, but I would pay good money to hear her do every one of his songs. She gets a good start on Temptation, her collection of 16 covers of Tom Waits' songs. As soon as one listens to the CD, one finds an answer to a question that hadn't really been asked yet: What happens when a truly refined voice covers Tom Waits?

She covers a few of his better known songs, most significantly "Jersey Girl," more famously known through Bruce Springsteen's live version. In that case, we end up with three exquisite versions, Waits' bluesy original, Springsteen's anthem (because what else could Bruce create at the time), and Cole's jazz standard version.

For the most part, Cole recognizes the strength of a good cover song -- treat it differently enough that people might not even recognize it. And let's face it, most purchasers of Temptation, like me, were doing it out of knowing Waits, not necessarily Cole. If Waits' songs are quirky, bizarre, cacophonous, and unsettling, then Cole's versions will be the exact opposite. These covers are, almost always, minimalist in their musical production. With barely bass and piano as accompaniment, the voice has to carry the tune.

Her version of "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" gets completely transformed, not just simply by her classically trained voice, but also through this minimalist approach to the music. Whereas Waits ripped through the song in 2:30 minutes of slashing guitar and rushed vocals, Cole sets back for 4:30 minutes of sparse piano and upright bass, her voice taking its time through the lyrics. Her voice quivers, cracks, gets sultry with "wish I could be a dog," and pushes the limits of her breath. Meanwhile, David Piltch's bass lightly throbs like a heartbeat and Aaron Davis' piano sprinkles occasional textures.

Cole stays faithful to the lyrics, even when other singers might change the gender ("I don't wanna have my hair fall out/I don't wanna be filled with doubt/I don't wanna be a good boy scout"), which can be jarring, but it plays into her hands for lines that sound more authentic from the female voice ("I don't wanna float on a broom," or even the "I don't wanna comb their hair and shine their shoes"). Makes you wonder if these were the kinds of lines that really drew Cole to the song.

A good cover song needs to give us something significantly different, even if the original artist may not appreciate it. If Waits sounded like he was barking the lyrics from the hood of his car under a full moon, Cole sounds like she is sitting in a smoky nightclub, lamenting her impending aging through cigarettes and glasses of scotch. I think it's safe to assume Waits was amused.

"I Don't Wanna Grow Up." Temptation. Holly Cole. Capitol. 1995. Link here.

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Day 43: Adam Ant "Goody Two Shoes." ->

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