Thursday, 6 October 2011

Joan Osborne - Little Wild One (2008)

12 years after most would have remembered her, Joan Osborne re-connected, rather than re-visited, her Relish roster of collaborators and re-kindles the bluesy, ballsy soft-rock that she made her name with.  I have always been long intrigued by Osborne’s one-hit-wonder status, with her striking voice and starkly beguiling follow-up single St Teresa being especially welcome on my music players.  After Joan hit the high heavens with her ubiquitous 1996 hit single One of Us, her career didn't stop but her radio stamina seemed to end without any clear indication as to why.  For one thing, it took 5 years for her record label issues to iron themselves out for a follow-up, 2000's Ritcheous Love, to be released. After this point, Osborne has steadily released music in the form of 2002's covers set How Sweet It Is, 2006's country-tinged Pretty Little Stranger, 2007's Breakfast In Bed and finally came 2008's Little Wild One.  Presumably it was the album her label wanted her to make 10 years previously as it reunites her with her Relish regulars  of Eric Brazilian (One of Us, Billie Myers' Kiss The Rain), Rick Chertoff (Cyndi Lauper's She Bop, Sophie B. Hawkins' Right Beside You) and Rob Hyman (both Lauper's Time After Time and The Water's Edge).  These guys have long fascinated me: they have written some incredible material for female artists over the years, most of which have had huge hits and then continued with a cult following).  Boasting her enigmatic vocal authority, the record contains slightly jazzier pop-rock sounds, layered with subtle keyboards here and there, R&B-inflections, and sporadic orchestrations arriving like warm night-time breezes. Her voice is like a power-steering mechanism: her ease, energetic runs and sheer fluidity between the different forces whilst sounding modest and restrained is a thing of beauty.

Album opener Halleluja will immediately draw comparisons to One of Us, but is more of a restraint folk song than radio bait.  Sweeter Than The Rest was the album's single and it sustains a haunting sense of romance that immediate rekindles the same flame as St. Teresa or perhaps even Planets of The Universe by Stevie Nicks. Haunting ballad built on a bridge of piano keys that slightly imitate Imagine, Cathedrals is the album's biggest surprise, radiant and deeply touching. Her bracing contralto is on fine balladeering form. The soft tempo of Meet You In The Middle is full of Joan’s lilting, dulcet harmonies and even the harmonica is tuneful, even if it sounds like the theme from Roseanne.

One of my favourite tracks from last year was a gorgeous, lo-fi strummy ballad called Loser Dreamer by country queen of stoic melancholy Shelby Lynne, and Osborne gives this song a run for its money with her own haunting acoustic torch song To The One I Love.  Both tracks are pensively considering life as it passes by, musing almost stream-of-concious world-weary lyrics.  Adding soul-drenching organs, To The One I Love flourishes in every way.

The soaring dirt-kicking Rodeo is her own Everyday Is A Winding Road, built on a series of seductive and frolicking high and low vocal journeys.  Softer still, Daddy-O relies on Joan's earthy wail to ignite its yearnfully plaintive seduction.  More organs add further chills.  An isolated electric guitar riff is also welcome here.  Seeking an Indian influence in her mesmerizingly off-key introduction notes, Can't Say No could almost have been a Billie Myers song.  Can't Say No has a stronger momentum than most of the songs here and even almost has a chorus.

The overall thrust of Osborne’s vocals is something very special.  Its mystical quality, tempered with occasional steel , gives me tingles. Every song fits so well here, with songs like To The One I Love softly working their magic, and highlighted by the more purposeful Sweeter Than The Rest, cautious torch ballad Cathedrals, the sensual Can’t Say No and energetic Rodeo. The conviction to her voice adds a legitimacy to the songs that her lyrics never quite achieve on their own, but the sense of renewed vigor makes this her best album to date.  The arrangements do well to compliment her rootsy qualities without making things too glossy at the expense of sincerity.  It can be heard that there is not as much money being thrown at this record as Relish, but this overdue album finally delivers a set of songs engaging from start to finish even if they will never be as exposed to people in the same way her signature song was and remains to this day.  One criticism might be that this album is echoing Relish too much, but that album was never this melodic and cohesive.  However, Little Wild One does not merely play it safe, her haunting drawl is there, the tender moments are the result of experience and the overall effect is one of skill, assurance and a connection between the musicians writing this album alongside a vastly underrated singer who just happens to have one of the very best voices of an entire generation.


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