It’s been an exciting millennium for Joan Osborne and fans. In 2002, the singer-songwriter appeared in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown and recorded a soul covers album called How Sweet It Is. Three years later she released One of Us, a Greatest Hit collection that lumped her big hit single together with the bulk of How Sweet It Is and sprayed it onto the wall to see what would stick. Later that same year, she also released a pretty nifty seasonal album, Christmas Means Love. And then last year, she recorded the rather excellent country album Pretty Little Stranger, a beautifully performed blend of original material and covers from the likes of the Grateful Dead, Patty Griffin, Kris Kristofferson, and Beth Nielsen Chapman.
Clearly, Osborne is a singer in search of a style.
So where would she go next? Punk rock covers in a lounge style? Punked up classics from the world of easy-listening? A faithfully metallic Sabbaff tribute album? Well, no. Presented by that peerless arbiter of exceptional good taste in all things, Time-Life, Osborne’s Breakfast in Bed is a return to the soul and R&B classics of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, with a handful of original material thrown in for some sort of measure and writer’s royalties
We could probably stop right here. You either are or are not the sort of person who buys Time-Life records. And if you are, then you certainly aren’t going to care what a new fangled invention like the interweb has to say about your consumer choices. But still ... to put it in terms that Time-Life types will be comfortable with, if How Sweet It Is was Ally McBeal—all silky smooth revisions of soul classic such as “I’ll Be There” and “Think”, then Breakfast In Bed is American Idol. A surprisingly excellent and still improving singer laying down a blueprint for all the fat girl singers to show off their overwhelmingly competent pipes while they get used to the fact that America is always going to prefer a thin white boy with a reedy voice to a big black girl with talent.
So, yes, Breakfast In Bed is overwhelmingly competent and yes, it includes Osborne’s two live contributions to Standing in the Shadows of Motown, but so what? I don’t need Osborne’s Dusty Springfield impersonation when I already have Dusty in Memphis. And while I may be adding her relaxed and drama-free rendition of “Midnight Train to Georgia” to my iPod, I certainly don’t need her over-egged “Ain’t No Sunshine”. Similarly, I’ve never needed anything from the satanic Hall & Oates, so why on earth would I care about Osborne’s cover of “Sara Smile”? And the only interesting thing I can find to say about the original songs here is that “Heart Of Stone” seems to pilfer part of its string arrangement from Portishead’s “Glory Box”.
The biggest problem is that Breakfast in Bed is all shine and polish, but no sex or sensuality. All polite strings, but nothing like enough bass or horns. This is music to stroke your chin to. Not your lover. If, however, you’ve forgotten how to dance, then Time/Life are prepared to knock you out both Breakfast in Bed and How Sweet It Is in one convenient package. And they’ll probably be happy to let you preview future releases with absolutely no commitment necessary. Enjoy.