Sometimes art and pain prove an unbeatable combination-which is why the Angry Young political band U2 was so much more fun than the technoposeurs of Pop Mart and the emotional longing of Billy Joel's The Stranger far outweighs anything in the happy River of Dreams. Along those lines, Khani Cole proved one of the surprise voices of the year on her debut release Piece of My Soul, an appropriately heart-baring vehicle for a strong, emotive alto. Anticipating an equally emotionally-charged follow-up, this writer was surprised to find the "new" Cole of the happier Places (Fahrenheit FR9807-2; 47:52) had been transformed into a somewhat generic smooth jazz dance diva, singing breathy lead lines over overdressed, hyper-synthesized arrangements like "Time Flies" and "Overtime." Co-produced by genre mainstay Marion Meadows, Places goes a long way to drain Cole of the empowered soul displayed previously. Missed opportunities include a cover of Blood, Sweat & Tears' chestnut "You've Made Me So Very Happy," which could have been deliciously dramatic with old fashioned croon-and-belt-it soul, but is instead reduced to a wash of bland synthesizer strings. Luckily, Cole's unique ability to turn a phrase shines through, elevating some of the drippier tracks. Cole's best pure performances, however, come at the end of the album, with the singer finally cutting loose on the skeletal blues, "Call My Job," which is nicely punctuated by Johnny DeFrancesco's rock guitar.
The sparse pop-hopping "Somebody" also stretches her a bit, offering the telling lyric "Sometimes I wish I was more than just a face/in just another crowd." To regain that status, perhaps Cole doesn't have to go to the lengths of enduring more painful life experience, she only need sidestep the artificial trappings which take away from her talent.