James Taylor singing “How Sweet It Is”. Linda Ronstadt doing Smokey’s “Ooh Baby, Baby”. Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall’s reading Gamble and Huff’s (brought to life by Teddy P and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes) “If You Don’t Know Me Now” — classic covers of classic soul recordings and this is the world that Joan Osborne, once the princess of progressive rock-pop (courtesy of her breakout debut Relish (1995), delves into on her new recording How Sweet It Is, released on her Womanly Hips label.
The inspiration for the collection occurred in the aftermath of Osborne’s participation in the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the just released film tribute to Motown’s legendary studio musicians the Funk Brothers. But according to Osborne, the project was given an added impetus in the post-9/11 world she inhabited. “After emerging from the shock of what happened, I began to think again about this project. I began to ask ‘what about these songs that I love, and what is it about them that have some relevance to people in the world in the world today?'” Throughout the recording, Osborne wraps her deep-blue husky voice around themes of recovery and defiance, creating a soundscape that is respectful to the musical traditions she appropriates, but also forges a fresh vision of those compositions.
Osborne plays it straight on the tracks that bookend How Sweet It Is. The opening track “I’ll Be Around”, originally side-A of a two-sided hit for the Spinners in 1972 (the backing track was “In the Middle of the Road”), fits comfortably into a smooth-jazz, new-age world, even more so now that a version of the song has been blaring regularly on American televisions courtesy of Cingular Wireless. The song is the proverbial stab at crossover play and far removed from the aesthetic conventions of most of the tracks on How Sweet It Is. The closing track, a striking acoustic version of Sly and the Family Stone’s precious “Everybody Is a Star”, is sparse and thoughtful, and follows closely to the integrity of the original recording. Osborne also plays it straight on the disc’s signature ballad “These Arms of Mine”. One of Otis Redding’s most moving performances (more so than “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”, Osborne is pushed to the limits of her own passionate stability, creating an interpretation that would have brought a tear to Redding’s own eyes. Equally moving is Osborne’s rendition of “Axis: Bold As Love”, which is given a Reggae-inflected shuffle swing, with requisite big-horns.
Osborne and producer John Leventhal are more creative on versions of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today” (Songs in the Key of Black Life, 1975). One of Wonder’s grandest ballads, Osborne recasts the song as a frat-boy bar rock anthem (I could hear Hootie wrapping his voice around this one), but one that definitely gets a tweak when Tawatha Agee, Paulette McWilliams, Vaneese Thomas (daughter of Rufus), Curtis King, and Fonzi Thornton — the A-list of classic soul background vocalists and all veterans of the Vandross Backing University — join the barroom choir. Like “Love’s in Need of Love Today”, Osborne’s soft-psychedelic version of Aretha Franklin’s “Think” stays closer to the core sensibilities that Osborne first explored on Relish.
During the time that How Sweet It Is was being conceived, Osborne also began to immerse herself in the world of underground DJs and was thus exposed to the sounds ambiance, drum n’ bass, and techno. Several tracks on How Sweet It Is show evidence of the influence of those styles on Osborne’s music. The Band’s classic ’60s strutter “The Weight” and Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is” are both brought into the 21st century — Osborne’s version of the latter aims to make James Taylor 1975 version of the song an afterthought — while her version of Timmy Thomas’s “Why Can’t We Live Together” (also recorded by Sade) suggests that the composition may be more timeless (both in theme and musicality) than originally thought. The song features one of Osborne’s strongest performances of the disc.
The best performances on How Sweet It Is are reserved for songs originally linked to the post-H-D-H (Holland-Dozier-Holland) Motown era. The collaborative efforts of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong helped Motown transition into the Funkified ’70s as they wrote and boarded classics like Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard Through the Grapevine” (the best selling Motown single ever at the time of its release in 1968) and the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”. Strong and Whitfield were also responsible for Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes” (1970) and Edwin Starr’s anti-Vietnam War anthem “War” (“ what is it good for? absolutely, nothin’! Say it again!”). On her version of “Smiling Faces Sometimes” Osborne imports the talents of Amhir “?uestlove” Thompson on drums, Meshell N’degeocello on bass and the vocals of “Chef” Isaac Hayes, whose voice has lost none of its rigor after being in the game for damn-near 40 years. Hayes and Osborne initially got together back in 1998, when they recorded a version of “I’m Just a Bill” for Schoolhouse Rocks the Vote. Whereas the original version was moody and introspective, Osborne and crew transform the song into a Hip-hop styled head-nodder ( the roof, the roof, the roof is on ).
Osborne’s version of Starr’s “War” is a lesson in smoldering restraint (it was hard to envision a cover of this song without thinking of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s performance on Seinfeld). Starr’s original version of the song was a defiant retort to the power that be — easily referenced by a generation of anti-war protesters — but one, that within the conventions of pop music, was never more than a slogan. In comparison, Osborne’s version, which clocks in at nearly 6 minutes, explores the emotional complexity that comes with the resolve that war is inevitable. At several points in the song, Osborne and her musicians push towards the brink of some fiery resolution, only to pull back, as if on the literal brink of rage and climax. It is during the moments following that we are simply left with Osborne’s aching vocals (“there’s got to be a better way”) and the simple guitar plucking (and stomping) of Leventhal. Osborne’s performance of the song is so singularly specific to the current moment of war-desiring pretenders and so-called defenders, that it is difficult to imagine the original context in which the song was written.
Joan Osborne is to be commended for showing that the music that served as the soundtrack for a generation of progressive activists in the ’60s, does in fact have a place in a world desiring that this generation of progressive activists to step up. In this regard, How Sweet It Is is truly a tribute to lives lived, lost, loved and struggled for.