This is a tough album to get through. Not because the songs are harrowing, not because the lyrics are heartfelt and emotional, not because the content is thought-provoking and calls for conversation, but because the album drags on and on. Simply put, Ballads, the eighth studio album from singer Paula Cole, is a slog. Ballads is a covers album that, oddly enough, consists of very few proper ballads. Most of the songs Cole covers are jazz standards, though a few folk songs find their way into the mix (“Ode to Billy Joe”, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”)
As an album, Ballads is far too long. There are twenty songs on this album. That’s a daunting enough number as is, though the styling makes it feel even longer. Almost every song on the album is performed in a light jazz, coffeeshop ambiance style–the folk songs are performed in a more acoustic style, a choice that works to those songs’ benefit. This style choice makes it so the songs all run together and barely anything stands out. By the time you reach the seventh or so song on the album, you feel like you’ve been listening to Ballads for days. And there’s no way around it: twenty songs is just too many for this sort of album. Ballads could have benefited from tighter editing and a stricter vetting process. Likewise, the arrangement of the songs is odd. Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” a seven minute long description of a racist attack on an African American woman and how the 1950s justice system failed to punish her attacker is followed by “Never Will I Marry,” a jaunty and bright musical theater number made famous by Judy Garland. It’s jarring as hell.
Cole’s voice matches that light jazz style: all the songs are sung lightly, in a more quiet and understated tone, as if she’s background noise, not a performance. This works for some songs, most notably “Blue Moon,” a highlight of the album. It’s beautiful, gentle and sweetly lethargic. “Blue Moon” fits the soft jazz ambiance perfectly. The instrumentation and Cole’s sweet voice mesh perfectly together, giving the song a calm and lazy aesthetic that’s perfectly fits “Blue Moon” itself.
But the understated, light jazz style does not work in the slightest when there’s a song where Cole needs to bring the power. Nowhere is this more obvious than the first track off the album: a cover of “God Bless the Child” by Billie Holiday. This is a song with the potential to be an amazing first track. “God Bless the Child” is a song where the vocalist can show off her power, technique, and emotion. This is the chance for Cole to pour in the emotion and have a ‘diva moment’, like she occasionally has in her 1990s work. But Cole performs it in a quiet, light, understated fashion that skirts dangerously close to a bland and boring lullabye.
The album’s production was entirely funded via Kickstarter. I’ve no idea how editing a Kickstarted album works in the first place: to the best of my knowledge, none of the songs were stretch goals or anything of the sort. And considering that the album Kickstarter surpassed it’s goal by over $10,000, there’s certainly an audience for Ballads. But I’m not that audience. For me, Ballads is a vanity project that could have used tighter editing, a more rigorous song selection, and a lot more spunk.