Pretty Little Stranger – Joan Osborne
It’s been four years since Joan Osborne has released a new studio effort. Although the singer/songwriter appeared on recordings — a tribute to Dolly Parton, another for Sister Rosetta Tharpe plus a holiday album they seemed like holdovers for the Real Thing. Witnessing her performances in the documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown plus her stints with the Dead and Phil Lesh & Friends, my hope was that she would take her natural affinity for the blues, which she sang early in her career, and deliver an album featuring her interpretations of standards or just a rough gutbucket blues-based album.
On Pretty Little Stranger she made her choice and artistically she stayed in Nashville to make an album that simmers with passions aroused and lost with a musical backdrop that evokes Bonnie Raitt at her most relaxed and assured, as well as Linda Ronstadt in her 1970s country-rock frame of mind. Twang gets more pronounced around the album’s midway point. The change in direction to something more akin to 21st country may be slight, but it’s noticeable, as pedal steel pops up and the playing displays that session team precision from Music City musicians. It doesn’t matter. Osborne easily morphs from rock to country, taking the material to glory time after time. It allows the Kentucky native to get her inner Cline/Lynn/Parton out of her system.
The polished quality that can be found, especially among the country numbers, make me wish that the reigns would have come off occasionally. “Who Divided” makes for a catchy, radio-friendly single, but how I wish that she would have put some teeth into the verses.“Who Divided” is one of seven songs Osborne wrote or co-wrote. And hearing her clever lyrical twists and penchant for tight melodic structures it’s obvious that we’ve been missing out for quite some time. The title track makes that abundantly clear.
For those who discovered or rediscovered Osborne when she sang with the Dead or in Lesh’s band, she covers the Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace,” giving it a stronger sense of heartache rather than its usual arrangement as an all-mournful elegy. At the same time, a song such as “Dead Roses” sounds like something that should have been played with either of those touring outfits. It embodies a combination of Osborne onstage sass, a groove that can be locked into and space for solos.
After tackling country while rekindling her rock groove, maybe she’s now in the mood to give that blues album a shot. Hey Joan, I’m available.