Joan Osborne
Photo: Courtesy of All Eyes Media

Joan Osborne Takes a Well-Deserved Victory Lap with ‘Radio Waves’

Joan Osborne’s Radio Waves is a career retrospective inside a live album inside a rarities compilation, a turducken of a music anthology and the result is tasty.

Radio Waves
Joan Osborne
Womanly Hips Records
22 February 2022

The first time I went to Memphis, I asked a resident to recommend a barbecue joint, to which she replied, “wet or dry?” Memphis takes its barbecue so seriously that the average native can wax rhapsodic about rubbed brisket vs. saucy brisket with the accuracy of Steph Curry throwing a three-pointer. Her suggested restaurant was a no-nonsense eatery with plastic checkerboard table covers and paper napkins, a confident flex that said, “our food is so good you won’t miss the linens”. This was a place where they expected you to lick your fingers in public; a place where the work staff’s relaxed demeanor disguised the fact they were up at dawn running the smoker. Ultimately, great barbecue is about slavish devotion to the meat, and every side dish is curated to showcase the meat’s smokiness.

Joan Osborne, with her musical barbecue joint Radio Waves, delivers the perfect amount of smokiness to every selection on her menu. Before COVID reduced live performances to a Zoom-and-Venmo affair, musicians with new albums to promote would regularly perform on radio stations around the world, which makes Radio Waves—a collection of rare radio performances— a throwback to a simpler, less infectious time.

Osborne’s greatest gifts are her burnished, insistent voice and her spirited instincts for reinterpretation. On her major-label debut Relish (1995), she remodeled a Captain Beefheart swamp stomp into a walk of no-shame rave-up, and she takes equal liberties here with her own canon.

Where Relish’s “Saint Teresa” was a warm romantic tale of a lover’s need, the aggressive, bass-free version here mirrors the narrator’s grim relationship to her next fix.

Sit down on the corner, just a little climb
When I make my money, got to get my dime
Sit down with her baby, wind is full of trash
She bold as the street light, dark and sweet as hash
Way down in the hollow, leavin’ so soon
Oh, Saint Teresa, higher than the moon

Her take on Gary Wright’s “My Love Is Alive” was a seamless airtight assemblage on 2000’s Righteous Love, sounding more “produced” than alive. But in a concert setting, her road-honed band doubles down on raw energy and roughs up “My Love Is Alive” until it submits to their will.

Remember the carefree serene vibe of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is”, gently swaying with tambourine shakes, tinkly piano, and buoyant background singers? Osborne rejects all of that, swapping in a lone blues guitar tensely strumming a downtempo minor-key lament. Although she doesn’t change the lyrics, the line “How sweet it is to be loved by you” now sounds haunting and fragile as if sung by someone who wants to flee their captor. It’s “Motown: The Stockholm Syndrome Remix”.

When one covers a song that has already been prominently covered, you can accidentally end up losing a non-participatory battle-of-the-bands contest. Slim Harpo’s stately blues standard “Shake Your Hips” was reverently replicated by the Rolling Stones on Exile on Main St. (1972), but irreverently performed by Osborne with the explosive fury of a juke joint on a fault line. 

She also brings a unique campfire flavor to Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love”, a composition with over 450 versions from artists like Billy Joel, Garth Brooks, and Adele. Yet she leans into the song’s hunger as if she’s the only person ever to sing it: “When the evening shadows and the stars appear / And there is no one there to dry your tears / I could hold you for a million years / To make you feel my love.”

Radio Waves also graces us with two muscular demos. The original version of Toshi Reagon’s “Real Love” is a sultry R&B jam with a pulse-like bassline and serrated guitar solo. Here Osborne channels Def Jam-era Rick Rubin and reduces it to a Soul II Soul hip-hop beat and stacks of En Vogue-esque vocals. “Dream a Little Dream” dates back to 1931 when Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra first crooned this fantasy classic. Osborne keeps the croon but extends the fantastical vibe with gauzy pedal-steel guitars and brushed snare backbeats. If David Lynch is looking for a mysterious nightclub tune for another Twin Peaks sequel, he should start here.

Surprisingly, the only song without a dramatic re-interpretation is her own “One of Us”. It’s perfectly lovely in its MTV Unplugged state, but its conservativeness runs counter to the imaginative spirit present in her other tracks. 

Radio Waves ultimately makes a case for Joan Osborne as an artist of restless consistency. This material was recorded in different studios in different countries over various decades, yet it hangs together beautifully as a complete work. She delivered the perfect amount of smokiness to every selection on her menu, and the result is tasty.

RATING 8 / 10
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