Holly Cole has plenty going for her: a voice as clear and crisp as the mountain air of her native Canada; a hip backing duo (piano and bass); production help from David (not Don) Was; and a firm (if not yet fully formed) sense of adapting the role of cabaret diva to an audience coming of age in the 90s. She can sell standards and novelty tunes, and her repertoire contains some clever and usually effective reworkings of popular music from the last 60 years; she ties it all together with rhythms and phraseology borrowed from jazz, without really becoming a jazz singer in the process. In performance she tends to overdo the irony–but then, here in the 90s, a singer without irony is like a consultant without a Web page. With two minor-hit albums behind her, the highly stylized Cole stands ready to leap to the next plateau; to do so, she has chosen to plumb the songbook of Tom Waits (on her almost-released new album, Temptation). This may not have been the best idea. As a longtime admirer of Waits’s compositions, I have no complaints about hearing the best of them resurrected–especially songs from his first four albums. But most of these songs, like Waits himself, float along on the cloud of his unique affectations; and when Cole layers on her own affectations–the very things that serve her well on other material–it can cause something bordering on cognitive dissonance. (For instance, on the song “Invitation to the Blues,” she sings the line “Mercy, mercy, Mr. Percy” and makes it something of an imprecation, instead of the free-association song-title reference that Waits intended.) Waits’s songs have an exaggerated expressionism that belongs to his decade–the 70s–as surely as Cole’s rather coy sense of cool belongs to this one. It may not be my favorite approach to singing in general or her material in particular, but this quality undergirds Cole’s style and lends her music both its impact and its allure. Monday, 8 PM, Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted; 559-1212 or 988-9000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andrew MacNaughtan.