Joan Osborne’s latest might get some press as a country record, but don’t expect Faith Hill to start obsessing over sales figures out of fear Osborne will overtake her. Osborne does indeed bring in the pedal steel guitars, violins, and banjos, but this is country in a Roseanne Cash or Kim Richey vein: meticulously crafted, understated, and loaded with material that less subtle singers will probably turn into megahits.
If Osborne’s nod towards Nashville seems unexpected, it shouldn’t. She’s shown increasing wanderlust since 1995’s Relish made her a star. She studied Qawwali singing under Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Her last effort, 2002’s How Sweet It Is, was a lively homage to vintage R&B. Some artists would scramble to repeat the commercial megasuccess of “One of Us”. Osborne seems to consider the song a blip on the radar, an aberration—if not a downright burden—that’s enabled/forced her to spread her wings a bit.
That said, Pretty Little Stranger, lacks the fire one usually expects from Osborne. At times, she seems tentative, while at others that tentativeness comes across as admirable vocal restraint. Compared to How Sweet It Is, where Osborne radiated passion for vintage soul at the same time that she felt free enough to mix influences (even going so far as to add some Eastern strains and flashes of her brief Qawwali apprenticeship), Pretty Little Stranger feels a tiny bit cautious.
But at the same time, Pretty Little Stranger sounds more exploratory than Osborne’s previous work, as if she’s trying the twang on for size, seeing how it clings to the curves of her melodies and lyrics, ready to keep what works and ditch what doesn’t. The title track kicks things off with some twangy guitar jangle and some nice slice-of-life lyrics. “Shake the Devil” floats along on some delicate banjo filigree, while “Dead Roses” lets Sonny Landreth loose for a typically finger-lickin’ good slide guitar solo.
Landreth isn’t the only guest tucked away on Pretty Little Stranger, although he’s certainly the most noticeable. Osborne is blessed with contributions from some fine, fine singers, but never gives into the temptation to make the songs little more than showcase duets. Alison Krauss blends into the southern gospel-tinged tones of “Holy Waters”. Patty Griffin sits in on a version of her own “What You Are”, while Vince Gill shows up for Beth Nielsen Chapman and Harlan Howard’s “Time Won’t Tell”. Rodney Crowell adds harmonies to “When the Blue Hour Comes”, which he wrote with Roy Orbison and Will Jennings. In each case, Osborne opts for sympathetic harmonies, using her singing partners like undercurrents of flavor.
In its even division of labor (six originals, six covers), Osborne seems leave a certain amount of interpretation up to the listener. Is she a worthy interpreter of classic songs? (She certainly makes Garcia and Hunter’s “Brokedown Palace” her own.) Or is she asserting herself as a songwriter of subtle strengths? (“Holy Waters” is certainly gorgeous.) Maybe it’s a little of both. In her selection of covers, she doesn’t acknowledge any kind of debt to Nashville, so much as she seems to be picking songs that fit the style of what she’s already creating on her own.
All in all, Pretty Little Stranger is an interesting album. It shows us another side of Osborne, and hints at yet another facet of her musical personality that she can draw on later. A few cuts here, like Griffin’s “What You Are”, call for a little less control than Osborne exhibits (Osborne’s own “Who Divided”, on the other hand, is a first-class example of the R&B swing that she can get going). Most of the time, though, she’s pitch-perfect. A couple of tracks also skirt too close to Adult Contemporary aural wallpaper territory, but that usually comes with the territory on albums that are put together as carefully as this one (although it might be fun to hear her put on some Gretchen Wilson-type swagger). Osborne might not tear up the country charts, but she shouldn’t lose the Nashville numbers in her Rolodex, either. She should definitely return to this sound.