Joan Osborne, Pretty Little Stranger (Vanguard, 2006)

Joan Osborne has had one of the more noteworthy careers of any recent rock performer. When her debut CD Relish came out in 1995, her brand of soul-tinged folk rock seemed destined to appeal mainly to the WFUV market, and she appeared to be content to do her own thing for whomever bothered to listen. Then, several months after Relish came out, she had a very improbable hit with "One Of Us," a quirky song about God written by Hooters guitarist Eric Bazilian. Suddenly Relish was a monster seller, but the upswing in her fortunes came at a heavy price. She and her record label had very different ideas about what the follow-up should be, and Osborne refused to compromise regardless of the toll it would take on her. Neither side budged, the lawyers were brought in, and after several years in limbo Osborne had to restart her career from scratch. When her second album Righteous Love finally came out in 2000, it was a bit harder-edged than Relish -- evidently a cardinal sin from the perspective of her original label. It didn't come close to matching the sales of Relish, but at least Osborne was in control of her music and the output was solid. Always a better singer than a songwriter, she returned in 2002 with How Sweet It Is, an excellent set of soul covers that merged Osborne's potent voice with some classic material. Artistically at least, Joan Osborne had more than come all the way back.

For her new offering Pretty Little Stranger, Osborne aims for a country feel, even recording a good part of the album in Nashville. Guests include Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, and Rodney Crowell. She deftly mixes her own compositions with the covers on this album. For example, her ominous "Shake The Devil" could easily pass for a folk standard, and fits perfectly between Patty Griffin's "What You Are" and Kris Kristofferson's sad ballad "Please Don't Tell Me How The Story Ends." Other interesting covers include The Grateful Dead's "Brokedown Palace" and an excellent rendition of the country standard "Till I Get It Right," originally done by Tammy Wynette. While the covers tend to be mellow, Osborne adds some variety with her originals, including the rocking title song and the funky "Dead Roses." She also takes a very daring step by including "After Jane," a song very clearly about a relationship with another woman. The highlight of the album though, and the best song Osborne has written to date, is the brilliantly soulful "Who Divided," a very catchy song with excellent potential as a single.

Pretty Little Stranger
has its share of good songs, but Osborne doesn't always sound as completely in her element here as she did on How Sweet It Is. She brings some soul to the ballads, but her voice isn't as perfectly suited for country music as Neko Case's is, for example. Plus, other than "Who Divided," there wasn't enough energy to balance the sad, somber efforts. Given that, a couple of the ballads are very nicely done, and "Who Divided" by itself would have been sufficient to recommend giving this album a listen. Joan Osborne has determinedly stuck to her guns and done things her own way, and has never shied away from trying something a little different and challenging, regardless of the risk to her commercial aspirations. With Pretty Little Stranger, she has added another worthy effort to her increasingly impressive resumé.

Overall grade: B+
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