As far as guilty pleasures go, the following is quite an admission: I really like Joan Osborne’s 1994 globe conquering track ‘One Of Us’. There’s something about the brazenness of a song that closes with the line “nobody calling on the phone, except the pope maybe in Rome”, that I admire. And what’s more, I actually really like the album it comes from. There are four or five songs on Relish besides ‘One Of Us’ that are much less mawkish and show a Joplin-esque knack for the blues. The title track of Pretty Little Stranger contains lines that, although less evangelical than ‘One Of Us’, are no less naively charming: “There is a young boy who used to ride the A train / I want to tag him like a tiger / so I can track him as he moves around the city / so I can guard him like an angel”, bears a slightly stalkerish sense of fun. But Osborne, for some reason, can get away with this sort of thing. Perhaps it is the simple, unostentatious arrangements, or maybe it is that big, ballsy, bluesy voice.
Pretty Little Stranger is Osborne’s country album, and she has gone at it with some gusto. With backing from Allison Kraus and Rodney Crowell and heavy use of slide guitar on a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends’, this album is pitched firmly in the sort of territory inhabited by Rosanne Cash, Alison Moorer and Shelby Lynne. Following in the torch singing country tradition established by Patsy Cline, Cash and Moorer in particular have wrested the genre from the trite and formulaic grasp of establishment Nashville, using their excellent songwriting, interpretation and powerful voices to bring tales of sorrow, injustice, loss and tough love to an audience more used to candyfloss serenades to the singer’s cousin and power ballads about hog wrasslin’ polished to within an inch of their shelf lives. However, Osborne in no way achieves the same heights as Cash and Moorer, and rather, she sits with the latter’s sister Lynne, frequently missing the point of what she seems to be trying to do. Rather, Pretty Little Stranger becomes a showcase for Osborne’s big voice.
It is a common affliction among people possessed of such voices, that they feel they have to use them all the time (cf. Tina Turner, Anastasia). ‘Shake The Devil’ is a prime example. A delightful, folky acoustic number penned by Osborne herself, it would have benefited from a much subtler take; the anguished vocals are obvious and brash. Don’t get me wrong, a big voice can be a remarkable thing — Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ is the best recorded vocal of all time (fact!) — but on tender ballads, slow love songs or country acoustic numbers, less can surely be more.
The more up-tempo songs fare better from the Osborne treatment. ‘After Jane’, a self-penned end-of-an-affair song, has enough backing to carry the weighty pained voice, although the song itself is a bit weak. ‘Who Divided’ is a fantastic honky tonk take on the matter of heartbreak in which Osborne rises mightily to the challenge of the clamorous backing and captures the wry humour of the song. It’s a pity that so many of the other Osborne originals on the album lack finesse; while the adolescent poetry can be charming to some extent, the joke wears a little thin over the six compositions here. Covers of Patty Griffin (‘What You Are’), Kristofferson, and ‘Till I Get It Right’ (made famous by Tammy Wynette) illustrate that Osborne can spot a good song, but highlight the failings of her own. And all suffer from the big-voice treatment. ‘What You Are’, however, is a slow-burning delight, replete with cheesy guitar solo and Osborne’s powerful voice veering into ‘80s balladry by the country backroads with shoop shoop backing: another guilty pleasure right there.
Though it is in no way a terrible album, Pretty Little Stranger could have been so much better: a couple fewer self-penned songs and a more sensitive approach to the vocals, and Osborne would be in danger of making a seriously good addition to the slightly leftfield classic country canon. And for a moment on the closing, tender Rodney Crowell-penned ‘When The Blue Hour Comes’, it looks like she has got it right. The voice is fragile, the song is poetic and delicately balanced…and then she reaches the chorus, takes a deep breath and spoils the whole thing. This is an album that those with an ear for a guilty pleasure will want to like much more than they actually do.
[Vanguard; November 13, 2006]
Tagged joan osborne