If you were a member of a gay gym circa 1998, it’s unclear which one of two hits — seemingly played on a continuous loop — made you want to beat yourself over the head with the dumbbells more: Cher’s “Believe” or neophyte Paula Cole’s “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”

Actually, sexual orientation had nothing to do with the inescapability of both. Shopping malls, elevators, and waiting rooms all turned these perfectly professional pieces of confectioner’s pop into the equivalents of the skull-hammering voices that victimize some schizophrenics. Cher, coming back from a long dry spell, went on to gay iconhood, while the Massachusetts-born, classically trained singer-songwriter Cole was apparently swallowed up by the earth. (The lone exception to her disappearance being the “I don’t wanna wait” song from Dawson’s Creek, a tune that through a brief but fatal dose of overplaying has become synonymous with overwrought teenage melodrama.) Cole released a couple more less-publicized albums then had a child with chronic asthma. She severely curtailed her touring and recording and was dropped by her label. Seven absent years have ended, and she returns with Courage. Whether you should care probably depends on how much you like sweet, jazz- and cabaret-tinged musicianship a la Josh Groban. It’ll also make a difference if you’ve seen Cole live at the piano. Her performances invariably bring raves out of proportion to the tepidness of much of her studio work. Courage combines simple production lines of playful piano, nimble and folky acoustic guitar, nicely restrained classical strings, and, of course, the singer’s non-flashy, mellifluous way with her earnest lyrics. The opener “Comin’ Down” is a country-tinged gospel number that begs for relief from life’s curveballs. “Lonelytown” is piano-bar-ready, with its melancholy deDELETEion of “spider webs and weeds waist-high / Abandoned schoolyards and rusted wire.” The tropical beats and squirrely disco bass of “I Wanna Kiss You” is manna for the dance-floor masses. In short, Courage works so hard to display Cole’s versatility that it deflates her musical identity — maybe not such a good idea after seven years away from the spotlight. — Jimmy Fowler

Previous articleFound Objects
Next articlePolitics and Power