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


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.

The show's guest was Diana Krall, and even her well-known dedication to understatement was affected by the evening's shenanigans. She banished the melancholy from "I Thought About You," making it clear a reconciliation was in the cards, and found something between a murmur and a moan in the back of her throat to convey a newfound sense of nasty on "I'm Walkin'." Krall's expressiveness increases with each season. But bolstered by a fatback whomp, Brown's signature agility ultimately showed her the taillights. Such is the triumph of an instrumentalist gifted enough to make a melody out of just one note. — Jim Macnie


Pulling Their Weight

Fat Mama is a rapidly improving anomaly amid the groove-band scene. Get past the quintessential bar-band moniker (copped from a Herbie Hancock jam) and you've got an earnest and potentially evangelical Boulder octet that's introducing good, old-fashioned modern jazz— as in horns, charts, changes, free blowing, the works— to the scratchy-sweater crowd, while keeping a third eye on the ecstatic mind-meld sought by the latest generation of dance-club improvisers. Mama's also one of the few bands around comfortable at both Wetlands and the Knitting Factory, which is where it was last Friday, opening for Burlington prep-rappers Belizbeha.

Young enough to look like the fairly recent jazz-lab grads a few of them indeed are and closer to freestyling hinterland improvisers like Schleigho and the Slip than to Medeski Martin & Wood, Fat Mama are the musical children of Phish and Miles— both Denver-based trumpeter-composer Ron and the other one too, natch. The problem for groove-band fans is Fat Mama's emphasis on attack-and-decay mutation. So it doesn't take long for the shiny roar of guitarist Jonathan Goldberger's marvelous "Yid Panther" to dissolve into a dreamy meditation on the word "Chicago" from new turntablist Kevin Kendrick.

Erik Deutsch plays an old-school array of analog keyboards, and his composition "Bloodborne Pathogens" slid in and out of focus with a crafty yesterday-kind-of-tomorrow sound akin to Gil Evans's Svengali-era arrangements. I couldn't tell exactly when Deutsch's tune segued into "The Three Question Marks" (by band pal Joe Lukasic), but you couldn't miss the transition into Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter," rearranged to sound like an Egyptian marching band thinking simultaneously of Frank Zappa's "Eat That Question" and Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water." Massively extravagant when they're not delving into the cosmic abstract, and with a truly great album, Mamatus, they can't afford to repress, Fat Mama is big, sophisticated entertainment on a granola circuit that sometimes doesn't know how good it's got. — Richard Gehr


Real-Life Consumer Guide

The best deals are always the ones you aren't looking for. I've found some of my favorite records crammed in boxes on the floor of the semiannual WFMU record souks, laid out on blankets on 125th Street or Second Avenue, or tied in bundles next to the recycling on the curb. Of course, when you need a particular item to stuff a stocking, you have to pay the piper. In a town awash in unwanted promo copies, those with nimble fingers, no dust allergies, and plenty of time to waste can at least choose the piper. Herewith, the going rates as of Black Friday for some of this year's holiday hotcakes at a few select locations downtown. Prices are the lowest we could find for CDs (in many cases, the same item could be had for different prices at the same location). — Josh Goldfein

ST. MARKS SOUNDS MONDO KIM'S DISC- O- RAMA J&R MUSIC WORLD VIRGIN MEGASTORE
16 & 20 St. Marks Place 6 St. Marks Place 186 & 146 W. 4th St. 23 Park Row 52 E. 14th St.

Bad Boy's Greatest Hits Volume 1

$8.99 $8.99 $6.47 $15.99 $17.99
Beck, Mutations $8.99 $16.99 n/a $11.99 $13.99
Belle & Sebastian, The Boy With the Arab Strap $9.99 $13.99 n/a $13.99 $16.99
Black Star, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star $11.99 $11.99 n/a $13.99 $16.99
James Brown, Say It Live and Loud $9.99 $16.99 n/a $14.99 $17.99
Fatboy Slim, You've Come a Long Way, Baby $8.99 $15.99 $9.99 $11.99 $13.99
PJ Harvey, Is This Desire? $11.99 $9.99 n/a $14.99 $13.99
Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill $12.99 $16.99 $10.99 $13.99 $13.99
Korn, Follow the Leader $9.99 $8.99 $9.99 $14.99 $16.99
Method Man, Tical 2000: Judgement Day $12.99 $16.99 n/a $12.99 $13.99
Alanis Morissette, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie $11.99 n/a $10.99 $12.99 $13.99
Quasi, Featuring "Birds" $11.99 $12.99 n/a $11.99 n/a
Soundtrack, Velvet Goldmine $12.99 $15.99 n/a $14.99 $13.99
Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road $12.99 n/a $9.99 $11.99 $17.99

Bonus Rummage Items Sounds: Yum Yum, Dan Loves Patti CD, 88 cents; Walter Salas-Humara, Lagartija LP, $1.99; Babylon Dance Band LP, $2.99 Kim's:Laura Nyro, New York Tendaberry LP, $1; Ray Charles, Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music LP, $1 Disc-O-Rama:Lakeside, "Fantastic Voyage" 12", $3.99; Prince Paul, Psychoanalysis (What Is It?) CD, $2.75 J&R: Little Louis and Marc Anthony, When the Night Is Over CD, $1.99 Virgin:Chocolate croissant, $2.09

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