Joan Osborne: Radio Waves (Album Review)

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The first time I went to Memphis, I asked a resident for a barbecue recommendation, to which she replied “wet or dry?” Memphis takes its barbecue so seriously that the average native can get rhapsodic about rubbed brisket versus saucy brisket with the precision of Steph Curry throwing a three-pointer. His suggested restaurant was a no-frills restaurant with checkered plastic tablecloths and paper napkins, a confident flex that said, “our food is so good you won’t miss the sheets.” It was a place where you were expected to lick your fingers in public; a place where the relaxed attitude of the working staff masked the fact that they were up at dawn smooching the smoker. Ultimately, a good barbecue is a slavish devotion to the Meatand each side dish is arranged to showcase the smoke of the meat.

Joan Osborne, with her musical barbecue radio waves, delivers the perfect amount of smoke with every selection on their menu. Before COVID reduced live performances to a Zoom-and-Venmo affair, musicians with new albums to promote performed regularly on radio stations around the world, which makes radio waves—a collection of rare radio performances—a throwback to a simpler, less infectious time.

Osborne’s greatest gifts are his polished, insistent voice and his fiery instincts for reinterpretation. At his beginnings in a major Taste (1995), she’s turned a Captain Beefheart swamp kick into an unashamed walk, and she’s taking equal liberties here with her own cannon.

Or Relish’s “Saint Teresa” was a warm romantic tale of the need for a lover, the aggressive, bassless version here reflects the narrator’s dark relationship with his next fix.

Sit on the corner, just a little uphill
When I get my money, gotta get my dime
Sit down with her baby, the wind is full of trash
She’s bold like the streetlight, dark and sweet like hash
Down in the hollow, leaving so soon
Oh, Saint Therese, higher than the moon

Her rendition of Gary Wright’s “My Love Is Alive” was an airtight, seamless 2000s assemblage just love, sounding more “produced” than alive. But in a concert setting, his road-trodden band doubles up in raw energy and roars “My Love Is Alive” until he submits to their will.

Remember the serene, carefree vibe of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is,” gently swaying with tambourines, tinkling piano, and dynamic background vocals? Osborne rejects all of that, swapping a lonely blues guitar tensely strumming a downtempo minor-key lament. Although it doesn’t change the lyrics, the line “How sweet to be loved by you” now sounds haunting and fragile as if sung by someone wanting to flee their captor. It’s “Motown: The Stockholm Syndrome Remix”.

When a song is covered that has already been covered prominently, you can accidentally end up losing a non-participating band battle contest. Slim Harpo’s majestic blues standard “Shake Your Hips” was reverently reproduced by the Rolling Stones on Exile on Main St. (1972), but irreverently performed by Osborne with the explosive fury of a juke-joint on a fault line.

She also brings a unique campfire flavor to Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love,” a composition with over 450 versions by artists like Billy Joel, Garth Brooks and Adele. Yet she leans into the song’s hunger as if she were the only person to ever sing it: “When evening shadows and stars appear / And there’s no one to dry your tears / I could hold you back for a million years / To make you feel my love.

radio waves also gratifies us with two muscular demos. The original version of Toshi Reagon’s “Real Love” is a sultry R&B jam with a pulsating bassline and jagged guitar solo. Here, Osborne channels Def Jam-era Rick Rubin and whittles it down to a Soul II Soul hip-hop beat and stacks of En Vogue-esque vocals. “Dream a Little Dream” dates back to 1931, when Ozzie Nelson and his orchestra first sang this fantastical classic. Osborne keeps the croon but extends the fantastic vibe with wispy pedal steel guitars and brushed snare backbeats. If David Lynch is looking for a mysterious nightclub tune for another twin peaks sequel, it should start here.

Surprisingly, the only song without a dramatic reinterpretation is its own “One of Us”. It’s perfectly charming in its MTV unplugged state, but its conservative nature runs counter to the imaginative spirit present in its other tracks.

radio waves finally makes a case for Joan Osborne as an artist of restless coherence. This material has been recorded in different studios in different countries over several decades, but it fits together beautifully as a complete work. She delivered the perfect amount of smoke to every selection on her menu, and the result is flavorful.

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