CD Review of Pretty Little Stranger by Joan Osborne

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Pretty Little Stranger
starstarno starno starno star Label: Vanguard
Released: 2006
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Poor Joan Osborne. She spent the early ‘90s building a pretty nice career for herself as a talented belter of self-released blues rock before signing with Rick Chertoff’s Mercury-distributed Blue Gorilla label. The resultant album, 1995’s Relish, found Osborne veering away from the blues and into territory best described as Music for Female College Freshmen. (A target demographic that, not-so-incidentally, purchases lots of music; just ask Dido and Sarah McLachlan.)

Chertoff left nothing to chance with Relish – aside from producing the set, he brought a pair of ringers along. Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman were the chief songwriting principals in the Hooters, another Chertoff act; as you may recall, their band wasn’t doing much of anything at the time, and they were probably more than happy to pitch in. Bazilian’s biggest contribution was a song he wrote by himself, a simple little ditty called “One of Us” that went on to become the kind of hit that either makes or destroys a major-label career.

Even back then, it was relatively easy to guess which fate would befall Osborne. “One of Us” was far and away the catchiest thing on the album, and without it, Relish would have been a disappointingly limp collection; the best thing about it was Osborne’s voice.

And that last sentence, in a nutshell, is Joan Osborne’s recording career: a fantastic voice in search of an album’s worth of songs worth singing. Her second release, 2000’s Righteous Love, was a gum wrapper peeled off the heel of the Universal/PolyGram merger, and since its release, Osborne has slowly wandered the indie desert. Pretty Little Stranger is only her third collection of original material in eleven years.

(It definitely bears mentioning that Joan’s covers album, 2002’s How Sweet It Is, weds her singing to a series of unimpeachable classics, such as “These Arms of Mine” and “Why Can’t We Live Together”; as a result, it’s by far her most consistent, enjoyable release.)

Stranger is being touted as Osborne’s “country” album, which is fair enough; it does feature, after all, such notable Nashville heavyweights as Vince Gill, Rodney Crowell, and Alison Krauss. This description is really only a nominal one, however. Pedal steel aside, this album is more of the same soggy mid-tempo fare she’s always favored.

It isn’t horrible. Steve Buckingham’s production is glassy and pure, Osborne’s voice is unassailable, and the musicians are top-notch. But the songs are either naturally dull (e.g. the six tunes Osborne wrote) or overpowered by what seems to have been a concerted effort to craft an album of sheer, unrelenting competence. There’s so little range – of either melody or tempo – that on the rare occasions when everything actually clicks, as with Osborne’s cover of Patty Griffin’s “What You Are,” it’s actually somewhat jolting.

Pretty Little Stranger reflects Joan Osborne as an artist – too flawed to be consistently worthwhile, but on target just often enough to remind you of the talent involved. It’s maddening, in a way, but it definitely doesn’t make for great listening.

~Jeff Giles