Whatever reason that stalled the ascent of Canadian vocalist Holly Cole to the pinnacle of the jazz/pop pantheon inhabited by Diana Krall and Norah Jones wasn't caused by a lack of talent. Cole is a far better vocalist than either of them; as a stylist and an interpreter, Cole's readings of Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Johnny Mercer, Brian Wilson, Irving Berlin, Tom Waits, and so forth are intensely original, full of emotion, suave sophistication, and an expression that lends the songs themselves timeless. In Cole's voice, no matter how old the song, it comes to the listener as a fresh bouquet of nuance, style, and sassy grace. As a result, unlike the aforementioned duo, Cole's recordings come off as honest, free of artifice or the sheen of authenticity; her covers of standards are not retro redos, but authentic interpretations. Fans of cocktail jazz and jazz atmosphere -- but not jazz -- may bristle, but to hell with them; they probably believe TV commercials too. Shade is her first studio effort in three years and is, like its predecessor, Romantically Helpless, criminally unavailable in America. For starters, Shade, an album of summer-themed and amorously warm songs, boasts a host of standards, including a stunning read of the June Christy vehicle "Something Cool," by William Barnes. Accompanied only by David Piltch's bass and the gorgeously understated pianism of Aaron Davis, Cole sweeps away the 1950s baggage that usually accompanies the tune and reads it through the Waits of Foreign Affairs vintage. The phrasing bleeds slightly, from one line to the next, slipping beneath the melody and shimmers above it, all the while with a casual and rakish elegance. Likewise on Porter's "Too Darn Hot," Cole uses a staggered faux calypso rhythm, adding drummer Mark Kelso and a three-piece horn section to the mix. Still the feel is restrained, holding back enough to create a tension that belies just how warm the weather is with great regret -- because the protagonist is cool enough to know she longs to make the atmosphere with her lover even hotter ("I'd like to sup with my baby tonight/fill the cup with my baby tonight"). Referencing the Kinsey report never sounded so erotically charged. Perhaps the most stunning track on the album is one that deserves to be a pop standard covered by every singer with her salt. Cole's read of Wilson's "God Only Knows" is a glistening jewel. As the melody states itself impressionistically, she slides between the piano, an acoustic guitar, and a just-behind-the-beat set of loped brushes to let the words drip then float from her mouth in both reflection and affirmation, as if she were whispering aloud a letter she were writing in quiet desperation. When she shifts register for the subtly delicious slide guitar break, the tune slowly cracks wide open and the singer pours her heart, with pure devotion into the end of each line. Accompanied only by Davis, "We Kiss in a Shadow" is a forbidden lover's delight, sung with a yearning that belies the song's dark origins. Cole delivers the song as a prayer for the future when all the veils will be lifted as Davis plays in the upper middle register as if he is playng a hypnotic nursery rhyme. But the album goes on to underline these themes and become a work of great longing, filled with both regret and hope. Regretful reveries and admonitions to continue in spite of the odds are underscored by a loneliness that takes pleasure in want itself. Cole's voice is expressive in the poetic of ways: she allows the song to dictate to her its meaning before she delivers it into a microphone. Check the amazing read of Rodgers & Hart's "It Never Entered My Mind," with its stunning bass solo and modern arrangement. Here is the absent conversation with an even more absent lover: "You have what I lack myself/I even have to scratch my back myself." Ultimately, Shade is a sensual masterpiece that follows 2000's Romantically Helpless with even more boldness, good humor, dynamic empathy, and emotional sensitivity, in respect to its material. Never has the summer sounded so steamy, lush, and full of love and danger as it does on Shade.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek