Talk about a guy who should have been huge. An accomplished guitarist and songwriter who paid his dues playing for established artists, worked his way up through the ranks, and released album after album of polished, airtight pop music, Jude Cole was an easy choice for Next Big Thing status in the late ’80s and early ’90s. His songs had monster hooks, he looked good on MTV, and he rubbed shoulders with big names. And yet, aside from a couple of Top 40 hits, his recording career hasn’t amounted to much. It’d be great if today’s Guide could answer the big question — why? — but I ain’t Kreskin, just a dope at a keyboard, so a few words about each of his releases will have to do.

Jude Cole (1987)

“Slick” has never been a bad word in the Jude Cole universe; he’s clearly a big fan of major pop production, and never met an overdub he didn’t like. This meant that Jude Cole fit right in with everything else on the radio in 1987 — big gated snares, smooth guitars, and a wall of pitch-perfect vocals, all meticulously arranged beneath a thick layer of studio shellac. That ’80s gloss, more often than not, acted to disguise poor material — try to imagine, for instance, an acoustic version of the Starship’s “We Built This City” — but in Cole’s case, it was just a bright coat of paint on a well-built house.

The album featured a veritable Who’s Who of in-demand LA session players, like the ubiquitous synth programming team of Jeff Bova and Jimmy Bralower; there were even guest appearances by Kenny G (!) and — on the shoulda-been-a-hit “Everyone’s In Love” (download) — John Oates. “Something That You Want” (download) is another one that would have sounded great on the radio. Actually, just about the entire record was made for the radio, but it came and went without a ripple. Jude Cole has been out of print since the early ’90s, and — in an ironic twist — used copies now fetch upwards of $100 on eBay or Amazon. (Just click the purchase link above to get an idea.)

Why spend $100 that won’t even go to the artist? Download the album here, for the low, low price of free!

Better Days
Crying Mary
Life of Luxury
Like Lovers Do
The Hurt
Walk On Water
Walls That Bend
You Were In My Heart

A couple years later, Cole seemed poised for his breakthrough again, with his song “The First Impression” (download) on the Karate Kid III soundtrack. It sounds laughable now, but hey, Peter Cetera had a Number One hit with his Karate Kid II theme just three years before, so it seemed like a pretty sure thing. Karate Kid III, of course, sucked, and nobody went to see it or bought the soundtrack. Strike two for Jude Cole.

A View from 3rd Street (1990)

Three years after his debut, Cole re-emerged with A View from 3rd Street. The album is similar to its predecessor in some ways, like the LA production, and the densely layered vocals that were emerging as a hallmark of the artist’s sound. There were enough organic touches, however — an acoustic guitar here, a harmonica there — to keep the album sounding current in 1990. It actually sounds surprisingly fresh today — sure, the shimmering guitars on “Hallowed Ground” (download) are a little quaint, but “Get Me Through the Night” (download), among others, holds up reasonably well.

3rd Street gave Cole his first (and, as it turned out, only) taste of Top 40 success, with the singles “Baby, It’s Tonight” and “Time for Letting Go.” They were hits, but not big ones, which was a troubling sign for Cole’s career — Warner Bros. was putting some actual promotion behind the album, MTV played the videos a handful of times, and there was no reason why this shouldn’t have translated into big sales. But it didn’t.

Start the Car (1992)

This was Cole’s make-or-break release, and he knew it; nothing was left to chance. From the pensive cover photo, to the tracklisting stuffed with gorgeous, FM-ready ballads, to the insanely intricate production by James Newton Howard, this was supposed to be the album that showed what Cole could really do, and put him over the top in the process. The label lined up a tour and a major promotional push, including guest appearances on Letterman and the rest. And…nothing happened.

A major problem was the choice of the album’s title track as the first single. Perhaps Cole wanted to avoid being tagged as a sensitive balladeer by releasing a rock track to radio, or maybe the folks at the label just lost their minds and thought “Start the Car” stood a better chance of making Top 40 playlists than, say, “Worlds Apart” (download). I can’t say. What I can say is that “Start the Car” is a stupid song, one of the worst in Cole’s catalog, and its chart failure doomed future promotional efforts to back-burner status. It wouldn’t have mattered how feverishly Warners pushed the record by that point, anyway — so may copies of Start the Car had been shipped that the returns were already starting to flood cutout bins.

It’s a shame, because, as inconsistent as Car can be, it contains some of Cole’s better material, and songs like “A Place in the Line” (download), for instance, show measurable growth. Overall, though, it’s a pretty muddled record — half of it consists of obvious stabs at radio play, and on the other half, Cole presents himself as an old-school troubadour. Neither half was truly convincing. Removed from the album, though, some of the songs shine brilliantly; witness this live version of “Tell the Truth” (download).

I Don’t Know Why I Act This Way (1995)

Having gone as far as he could go with dense pop production on Start the Car, Cole could only simplify on his next release; still, for listeners who had grown accustomed to hearing his songs buried in a bag of studio tricks, I Don’t Know Why I Act This Way was a surprise. It isn’t exactly his “unplugged” record — “Madison” (download) is just as layered as anything he’d done before, and “Move if You’re Going” (download) kicks off with the same choir of multitracked Judes that had been featured so prominently on previous albums. These moments, though, are balanced out with quieter, darker fare; having gone through emotional turbulence, Cole had emerged in a reflective mood with a pile of solid songs. “Joe” (download) is a fine example of how far he’d come from the days of bouncy pop fare like “Everyone’s In Love”:

I go to church on Sunday morning
Come home and beat my wife
My name is Joe, and you know me
I’ve lived here all of my life
What a life

I’ve got this pain I cannot speak of
I’m not so bad as people say
Got two kids who look like angels
But sometimes
Sometimes I wish they’d fly away

Life is good, you know we’re lucky
Living in the U.S.A.
We’ve got everything we ever dreamed of
Darling, I don’t know why
I don’t know why I act this way

My next-door neighbor’s got a problem
He works hard, it don’t seem fair
His wife’s a teacher at the grade school
And we’ve been having this affair
I’ve been a son, I’ve been a soldier
I’ve thrown the football in the rain
The blood of murderers and millionaires is pounding
Pounding, pounding through my veins

But life is good, you know we’re lucky
Living in the U.S. of A.
And we got everything we ever dreamed of
Baby, I don’t know why
I don’t know why I act this way

Kennedy was in the White House
We were children in the sun
Smoking candy cigarettes
Cowboys and Indians with toy guns
Some nights I go down to the basement
With thoughts I do not understand
A Purple Heart and a loaded pistol, and I just hold ‘em
Hold ‘em in my hands

Life is good, you know we’re lucky
‘Cause baby, this is the U.S.A.
And we got everything we ever dreamed of
Darling, I don’t know why
No, I don’t know why I act this way
I don’t know why I act this way
No, I don’t know why I act this way

I Don’t Know Why I Act This Way is a fine album — Cole’s finest — yet, in some ways, its commercial failure is easiest to understand. His fans were used to hearing him sing about love and love lost, after all, and may not have been prepared for this exhumation of Baby Boomer ghosts, or the bittersweet wedding ballad “Hole at the Top of the World,” or the scarred redemption of “Heaven’s Last Attempt.” And his new label, Island Records, certainly had no idea how to promote them. This was Island’s failure, but there weren’t many places on the pop landscape for this kind of introspective fare in 1995.

After the album died, Cole decided to concentrate his efforts on behind-the-scenes work, and only a fool would blame him; having cranked out some of the most radio-riffic music of the last ten years, and one of the best singer/songwriter albums to boot, he likely concluded that it didn’t matter how good his stuff was. He just wasn’t going to sell a million records. He bounced around for awhile, doing a small tour here and there — listen to this live acoustic version of “Baby, It’s Tonight” (download) — and moved into management and production. All the while, though, there was a group of hardcore fans impatiently waiting for a new studio album.

Falling Home (2000)

Since the mid-to-late 1990s, the Web has provided fertile ground for small-market artists to interact with their fans, and has been no exception. Responding to repeated requests for a new album, Cole released Falling Home in 2000. It was greeted with unanimous praise by the fanfolk, but to me, it was (and remains) an inconsistent letdown. I’ve probably listened to this album start-to-finish fewer times than Start the Car, which is really saying something.

The problem is that, for the first time, the songs really aren’t there. Of course, there are high points — “You Make it Easy” (download) is gorgeous, and “Raining on the Moon” (download) is a clever little piece of pop. But more often than not, he either takes a great idea and misfires with it, like on the title track (download), or the songs are simply not on a level with Cole’s earlier material. Given the limited returns he’d received on his earlier investments, and his blossoming career as a manager for artists such as Lifehouse, it’s easy to imagine that perhaps Home didn’t have Cole’s full attention, or that these were songs he’d written for other artists’ consideration.

Either way, it seems safe to say that Jude Cole’s career as a full-time recording artist has come to an end. He’s still making music — and releasing periodic tidbits to the fans at his site — but future full-length albums are probably destined to be few and far between. Pop connoisseurs, however, would be hard-pressed to do better than his first four releases, and should find something to love on the fifth.

Meet me back here next week — same Bat time, same Bat channel — for another Complete Idiot’s Guide. Until then, enjoy!

About the Author

Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

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