Cole Comfort

For someone so intent on seduction, Holly Cole attracts an awfully chaste audience. Almost filling every folding chair in a temporarily sedentary Irving Plaza last Friday night, the crowd was practically all settled-looking couples and families. Cole's demure look that night— hair down past her shoulders, very conservative black pantsuit with a long-collared blue blouse— seemed to be honoring some sense of occasion, and indeed, this was her "Holiday" show, complete with a 14-piece string section, one of only two such concerts that the Canadian is bringing to the States on her current tour.

Once Cole opened her mouth, she showed that, for the most part, her heart belongs to sophisticated decadence rather than traditional Christmas cheer. She kicked things off with Chrissie Hynde's "2000 Miles," a resonant choice, and her fractured phrasing, deep flourishes, and gritty pronunciations gave images like "diamonds in the snow" a dark richness. She alternated between naughty and nice throughout, but was most convincing as a bad girl. On that Tom Waits song that goes "I'd tell you all my secrets but I lie about my past," her reading of the line "the boys all go to hell" had me reaching into the upper pocket of my jeans, checking for drugs that I did not have. Her exquisite throwaway of "Santa Baby" had me forgetting Eartha Kitt, never mind Madonna. "Blame It on My Youth"? Say no more. And so on.

Of course the chipper stuff— an improbable but impeccable "I've Just Seen a Face," a zero-to-60 version of "If I Were a Bell"— was given equally tender loving care, and thankfully the string section, led by one Glenn Morley, didn't bleed all over the place. Indeed, the arrangements were so conscientious that the strings didn't even register as such, more coloration than orchestration. It was good for most of the audience that they had come in pairs. The dateless among us (this is not a plea for sympathy— my sweetie had the flu) wound up all chantoozied up with no place to go. — Glenn Kenny

Holly Cole at Irving Plaza: most convincing as a bad girl
Michael Sofronski
Holly Cole at Irving Plaza: most convincing as a bad girl

Sync or Swim

'N Sync are five showbiz hotties who became a boy group in the leisure mecca of Orlando, Florida, and achieved commercial liftoff in Germany. The Backstreet Boys are five showbiz hotties who became a boy group in the leisure mecca of Orlando, Florida, and achieved commercial liftoff in Germany. There you have three current U.S. top-10 albums and the emptiest pop coincidence since Gerry and the Pacemakers ferried cross the Mersey. I mean, before you launch that Epcot Center boycott, remember— Coke really is different from Pepsi.

Unfortunately, 'N Sync are Royal Crown. The Backstreet Boys won't take risk one till the hits stop, but only leches who believe 13-year-old girls were culturally deprived before Next waxed their erections and Total faked masturbation would deny the pleasure potential and developmental utility of age-appropriate fantasy. The problem with 'N Sync— whose founding members, designated heartthrob Justin Timberlake and genuine singer JC Chasez, met while working the Mickey Mouse Club— is that they're into safety for its own sake. At Newark's New Jersey Performing Arts Center last Friday, their median fan was a very early adolescent a notch younger than the full-fledged teens who blew up Radio City for the Backstreet Boys and a notch older than the grade-schoolers who took sisterhood lessons from the Spice Girls at Madison Square Garden. And despite its sexual component— "Take It All Off," one sign dared— the shriek of hysteria 'N Sync elicited was more kiddie squeal than hormonal howl. That's the test. They failed it.

Does it matter that 'N Sync replaced the Backstreets' Boyz II Men tribute with a Bee Gees medley? That 'N Sync's big dance riff recycles the Backstreets' big dance riff? That 'N Sync's "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You" packs more ick than the entire Backstreets album? That instead of relegating crotch pumps to their bad boys 'N Sync abjure them altogether? That, actually, they don't have any bad boys? Yes— these things add up. But what confused me most is why they didn't promote their Christmas album for a song or two. Hasn't their accountant told them the name of this game is take the money and run? Hmm— maybe not. — Robert Christgau

Groove Rider

Doesn't matter who you are— Milt Jackson, Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins or the affluent jazz novice who sat across from me at the Blue Note last week— when Ray Brown walks, you follow. The 72-year-old bassist's command of tempo is immensely coercive, and when he breaks into one of his famous instrumental struts, it's Svengali time: both crowds and colleagues submit to his will. Call him a hipnotist.

My well-groomed Saturday-night tablemate felt the groove deep enough to rock in place, her brushed-back bangs falling into her eyes for a sec before she realized she might be having too much fun. It's great to see music trigger such pleasure, and throughout the set, Brown, pianist Geoff Keezer, and drummer Kareem Riggins gave their lilting takes of "Summertime," "Milestones," and "I've Got a Crush on You" an underlying vehemence that charged the room. The leader even got some audience participation going during a loosey-goosey medley he introduced by quipping, "We can play anything we like on this, as long as it was written by Duke Ellington." For his solo segment, Brown chose "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," a tune he recorded with the maestro on the sublime '72 duet, This One's for Blanton. He barely made it to the "heard they crowded the floor" line before the whole joint was snapping its fingers like it was Big Bad Voodoo Daddy up there.

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