All too often, an artist's comeback is timid and tentative. Not so with Natalie Cole. On her new album, "I'm Ready," she sounds tough and fresh and newly confident, as well she should be. And this despite a passel of production snags seemingly rigged to test her mettle.
The first side gets off to a fine start with "Too Much Mister," one of the five Chuck Jackson/Marvin Yancy tunes on the album and the only one that really works -- but more about this undynamic duo later. "Too Much Mister" is perfect for Cole's muscular mid-range and the lyrics give her a forum for phrasing that is sassy and self-assured instead of weepy and vulnerable, an approach with which she has never seemed very comfortable.
Those expecting the title track to be a steamy, thigh-shimmying testament to renewed faith will be somewhat disappointed, although it moves along nicely enough and Cole musters up impressive conviction for the girl-chases-guy lyrics. Paulhino da Costa's sensitive percussion work throughout the album, but especially on the title track and "Keep It on the Outside," lends a subtle integrity to the songs that befits Cole's stylish phrasing without making it seem overly slick.
The placement on Side Two of "Time (Heals All Wounds)" followed by "(I'm Coming) Straight from the Heart" shows how brightly Cole can shine when Jackson and Yancy stay out of her floodlights. She obviously feels every nuance of "Time," which she co-wrote with Chuck Bynum and Joseph Blocker. The song bubbles and churns, Cole moving deftly within the dynamics of the music, until finally it reaches full boil for the final chorus. "Straight from the Heart," on the other hand, is typical Jackson/Yancy fare: not bad lyrics, you understand, simply dumb, primarily because they fel obliged to build the sincerity into the words and music rather than letting Cole take care of that part herself. What's wrong with their songwriting is also what's wrong with their production -- it's all too careful, competent and ultimately bland.
The album's sleeper is "I'm Your Mirror," the closing track and the only one written solely by Cole. The lyrics are sweet, the music tender and Cole's voice as feathery-fine and elegant as it's ever been. There's no "This Will Be" on Cole's brave new album, but there's plenty of evidence that its title is appropriate. And now that she's ready, she ought to consider looking around for some producing and writing talent that's prepared to meet her halfway. NATALIE COLE -- "I'm Ready" (Epic FE 38280). Appearing Friday at 8 at Constitution Hall.