If the name seems vaguely familiar, you might be remembering the giant pop smash hit of 1996, “One Of Us,” in which Joan Osborne sold America on the concept of envisioning the Deity as an ordinary Joe riding the bus trying to make His way home after a hard day’s work. The single was a bit more earnest-sounding than the rest of her material, and nothing she did thereafter came close to grabbing the public’s ear.
By 2001, Osborne had decided to quit reaching for the brass ring of stardom, and instead began concentrating on her love of American roots music. She produced Speaking In Tongues, a tour de force of blues, soul, and gospel by the Holmes Brothers. She appeared in the classic documentary film Standing In The Shadows of Motown, and toured with the Funk Brothers, the musicians who played on so many Motown hits. Osborne’s own records found her covering rock (Jimi Hendrix, the Band), soul (Sly & the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder), and country (Kris Kristofferson, Rodney Crowell, Lyle Lovett).
Joan Osborne's Bring It On Home
The obvious next move is to make a blues album, and that’s what we’ve got here in Bring It On Home, a collection of 12 songs from a wide range of blues and R&B sources. The liner notes indicate that she and co-producer/guitarist Jack Petruzzelli spent a lot of time digging up songs from each other’s record collections, looking for material that Osborne could turn into something much more than a reverential cover. If most of the winners were songs she hadn’t been familiar with before the process began, so much the better for keeping her focused on presenting her own interpretations.
Backed by a crack band of session players and arranged presumably by Petruzzelli, there are few attempts to simply play the parts heard on the original versions. Each song sounds as though Osborne’s vocal approach provided the template for the band to fill in behind her. As such, solos are few and far between (though expertly done when called for). This is an album intended to present songs first, and the devastating skill on display is something which can be noted, but not dwelled upon.
I Don't Need No Doctor
The album opens with “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” the Ashford & Simpson song made famous by first Ray Charles and later Humble Pie. Osborne barrels right into it as if these two iconic versions never existed. With the Holmes Brothers urging her on as an anti-distaff Raelettes, she rocks out on this raucous blues, confident that the only thing she needs to cure her ills is the love of that good man, and aware that she knows exactly where to find him.
The Willie Dixon-penned Sonny Boy Williamson classic “Bring It On Home” sounds like the music of choice for her reunion with that lover. It’s steamy, sultry, and downright mesmerizingly sexy, as “Barbecue” Bob Pomeroy reacts on harmonica to her seductive vocals recorded with her lips practically on top of the microphone. “Roll Like a Wheel” was originally recorded by Olive Brown, a blues vocalist from St. Louis who never exactly hit the big time, not for lack of talent or material. She wrote this song, and Osborne sinks her teeth into this barrelhouse rocker like she was living the life herself back in the 1940s.
Speaking of great singers from St. Louis, Osborne then tackles “Game Of Love,” a deep catalogue track from Ike and Tina Turner in the early 1970s. This soul strutting manifesto allows Osborne, like Tina, to declare that she can give as good as she gets in the two-timing scenario. John Mayall’s gorgeous and nearly forgotten “Broken Wings” gives Osborne the chance to whip up a fiercely dependant sympathy for the beaten-down love of her life, and benefits from a genuinely spine-tingling yet simple guitar line by either Petruzzelli or Andrew Carille.
If this were released on LP, it would be a good move to flip the record over here, even though only 5 of 12 songs have elapsed. That’s because “Shoorah! Shoorah!,” a gem performed originally by Betty Wright, and penned by the incomparable Allen Toussaint, sounds like it’s time to begin the party all over again. With Toussaint himself tickling the ivories in the band, Osborne has a great time with the elastic rhythms and sparkling hook-filled melody of this one. Her version of Muddy Waters’ “I Want to Be Loved” is next, and here she turns his masculine demands into a feminine seduction. As Osborne and back-up vocalist Audrey Martell coo the title line, any man listening begins lining up to learn if she’s singing this one straight to him.
Shake Your Hips
Osborne then digs the blues out of Bill Withers’ soulful “Same Love That Made Me Laugh.” There is no song on the record which better shows off her ability to wring emotional nuance and concern out of her unbelievably rich vocal chops. Paying tribute to Slim Harpo via the Rolling Stones, Osborne next does an infectious version of “Shake Your Hips,” which features her own high-pitched evocative cry when the band kicks into the boogie part of the song. Clarence Carter sang the original version of “I’m Qualified” back in the heyday of Muscle Shoals soul, and Osborne takes it down deep into that territory. Without aping Carter, she sounds perfectly qualified to fill the need of any potential mate.
Otis Redding’s classic “Champagne and Wine” gets a luxurious, warm-throated treatment, benefitting greatly from Petruzelli’s soft and sweet slide guitar parts. The album ends with a masterful version of Al Green’s “Rhymes,” (aka the one that goes, “I can’t let it bring me down, turn my smile into a frown”). It’s not easy to come up with a fresh arrangement on anything recorded by the Hi rhythm section, and Osborne envelops the song with a particularly inviting and openly joyous take on the bad luck described within.
Steve's Bottom Line
Joan Osborne just gets better and better as a song interpreter, and this collection of blues and R&B just might be her finest recording to date. Now, what will she try next? (Saguaro Road Records, released March 27, 2012)