Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Anders Osborne has experienced a sort of career renaissance since signing with Alligator Records for 2010's American Patchwork. A stripped-down affair that highlighted Osborne's unique blend of rock, blues, and soul the album revived the guitarist's flagging commercial fortunes and marked him as a creative force to be reckoned with. If that album was an artistic whisper, 2012's Black Eye Galaxy was a scream from the darkness, Osborne's intelligent lyricism matched by a furious, guitar-driven blues-rock soundtrack.
Osborne toured non-stop in support of Black Eye Galaxy, bringing his talents to an entirely new audience, but he somehow found enough time to sit for a spell in his New Orleans studio to cut a few tracks. Three Free Amigos is a six-song, semi-acoustic EP featuring four brand new tunes, the previously unrecorded "It's Gonna Be OK" (covered by singer Theresa Andersson on her 2004 album Shine), and a re-imagined take of Osborne's "Never Is A Real Long Time," originally recorded for his 1999 album Living Room. Osborne is backed on several songs by his road-tested band – bassist Carl Defrene and drummer Eric Bolivar – as well as guests like keyboardist Michael Burkhart, harp player Johnny Sansone, guitarist Billy Iuso, and singer Maggie Koerner.
Anders Osborne's Three Free Amigos
Three Free Amigos opens with the title track, a rootsy story-song that mixes country twang with a bluesy undercurrent, a tale of music and merry-making on the road with insightful lyrics and a fierce intelligence. Osborne sounds, at times, like Nashville alt-country singer/songwriter Todd Snider in both word and music, but the song stays grounded in the blues through Osborne's livewire fretwork and earthy vocals. The lengthy guitar solo that rolls the song towards the credits is hauntingly beautiful in its simplicity and efficiency, Osborne masterfully playing off the countering acoustic strum and dark-hued rhythms, his instrument giving voice to the unstated emotions that lay beneath the song's lyrics before fading into the horizon.
The reggae-styled "Marmalade" takes an entirely different tack, Osborne getting his "inner rasta" on with the best song Bob Marley never wrote. The lively rhythms are tailor-made for the joyous emotion of the lyrics, the song a welcome celebration of love and life with a beat guaranteed to get you on your feet. The gorgeous backing vocals just add to the authenticity of the performance, the song more a tribute to Marley's immense legacy than an attempt at mimicry. Osborne's mid-tempo "Jealous Love" veers off down another musical path entirely, sparse instrumentation and an undeniable Bo Diddley beat serving as a backbone for a sizzling duet between Osborne and singer Maggie Koerner.
Never Is A Real Long Time
The melancholy "It's Gonna Be OK" is equally sparse in instrumentation, relying more on Osborne's anguished vocals and the gorgeous tone of his subtle six-string undercurrent. The emotional, pleading, bittersweet lyrics are lent greater strength by the Sansone's crying harpwork and Koerner's wistful backing vocals. Although the song is ostensibly a life-affirming screed, Osborne's wavering voice, Koerner's wailing vocals, and the guitarist's short, shocking, brilliant guitar lines leaves one in doubt.
The heart and soul of Three Free Amigos is the striking, heartbreaking "Never Is A Real Long Time," the song's stripped-down framework belying the incredible performance provided by Osborne and Koerner, the lyrics speaking of loneliness, emotional distance, and unrequited love. Relying again on Osborne's strained, empathetic vocals which are, in turn, supported by Koerner's soulful backing vox, the guitarist's nuanced fretwork provides a thematic thread throughout, cutting off sharply at the end and leaving the listener hanging by a thin thread. The EP closes out with the more up-tempo "We Move On," a lyrically upbeat and uplifting true affirmation of life with a jaunty rhythm, stinging guitarwork, a bit of friendly harp, and an infectious melody that creates an overall enchanting vibe.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Three Free Amigos is meant to be a stopgap between full-length albums, but there are few artists that could deliver six songs as rich, thoughtful, and stylistically different and yet pull it all together into a cohesive, entertaining artistic statement as Osborne has done here. Absent the scorching six-string blues-rock pyrotechnics displayed on Black Eye Galaxy, Osborne's Three Free Amigos relies more on the subtlety and skill of his playing, the spotlight focused on his raw, often intense vocals and poetic songwriting. It's a masterful work, playful and yet often somber, a solid collection of roots 'n' blues music that is bluesy mostly on the fringes but deeply soulful in the grooves where it counts. (Alligator Records, released February 12, 2013)
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