PAULA COLE -- This Fire (Imago / Warner Brothers)

The first time I heard Paula Cole was about two years ago. She had just released her first album, Harbinger, and honestly, I didn't pay much attention. A few months later, I saw her as the opening act for Sarah McLachlan and was blown away. Her performance was much more intense than the soft-spoken tunes on Harbinger. From that point forward, I was a fan. Since then, she's toured the world with Peter Gabriel, performed with Melissa Etheridge on VH1 Duets, and released her second album, This Fire.

The first thing you notice about This Fire, compared to Harbinger, is the increased intensity and power in the vocals. The emotionally charged songs tell the story of a 'coming of age' for Cole. On the first track, "Tiger," she makes a reference to "Bethlehem" (a track from Harbinger) as she sings "I've left Bethlehem and I feel free. I've left the girl I was supposed to be." The autobiographical song grabs you and doesn't let go. Peter Gabriel's influence is all over this song--both musically, and in the vocal arrangement.

"Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" is the first single from the CD. Although the CD was released in 1996, it seemed that no one noticed her until recently. Since the song started getting airplay, she's been thrust into the public eye. The song's runaway success was quite a surprise to Cole. "Throwing Stones" is an intense and powerful tune about a love gone sour. With lyrics like " . . . my anger is my best friend . . . be careful, I may bite your head off," Paula's pissed, and makes no bones about it.

One of the best tracks on This Fire is "Mississippi." The song is a musical roller coaster ride; starting with the tender Kate Bush-influenced intros on the verses, climbing into a ferocious intensity on the choruses. "Nietzsche's Eyes" sounds a lot like a Tori Amos song, with its piano-based arrangement. "Road to Dead" is another high point on the CD, sounding like a Peter Gabriel song with Sarah McLachlan doing the backup vocals. Things heat up again on "feelin' love." This smoldering cut literally oozes sensuality. "hush, hush, hush" is a lullaby-like duet with Gabriel, featuring some poignant piano by Cole as the song closes to a close.

Cole has come a long way musically since her first CD, producing a riveting and compelling new collection of songs. This Fire is the most intense performance by a female artist since Tori Amos' Little Earthquakes.

© 1997 Steve Marshall