Finally, Joan Osborne has come to her senses and recorded a soul record. Ever since she performed in Standing in the Shadows of Motown -- those performances are tacked on here at the end -- one thought that Osborne (the most gifted vocalist of her generation and a singer who understands the nuance of phrase, time, and elocution) would return to her own roots as a soul, R&B, and blues singer, the one not often heard by mainstream America but who was evidenced on her first two self-produced recordings on her Womanly Hips label. That didn't happen right away. She recorded the faux-Americana set Pretty Little Stranger, which did not offer listeners her voice but rather her refined restraint on a rather forgettable collection of songs. Even her first attempt at soul covers, 2002's How Sweet It Is, held to very modern production techniques and, despite her ability to make the material shine (check her reading of Thom Bell's "I'll Be Around" or Barrett Strong's "Smiling Faces Sometimes" for proof), the rest of the album imploded on itself. Breakfast in Bed is closer -- much closer -- but not there. Osborne splits the album between soul classics and self-penned tunes in the vernacular of that music. First the good news: she allows her voice some room here, and can get inside the material when she's not intimidated by it. She also sticks closer to the slicker Philly soul side of the fence rather than Stax/Volt or Motown (though she does cover Eddie Hinton's "Breakfast in Bed").
To her credit, she picks tunes that have already been defined by the original artists who recorded them. This is both a plus and minus. She digs deep into Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" and Hall & Oates' "Sara Smile," and even Blue Lovett's "Kiss and Say Goodbye," and expresses the discipline and quiet power in her voice. Elsewhere, however, on such stalwart monolithic tunes as "Breakfast in Bed" (is anybody ever going to forget Dusty Springfield's version? It's almost holy), "Midnight Train to Georgia," and Charles McCormick's "Natural High," she shies away from deeper emotions, such as the alternatively more desperate, bittersweet, or erotic seductiveness that the aforementioned three tunes call for. In other words, Osborne doesn't go as far as listeners know she can in delivering them. For evidence, check out the abandon and sensual power of "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" or the celebratory eroticism in "Heatwave," which she did with the Funk Brothers. Granted, these last two were recorded live, but it's the voice that gets the material across. That said, some of Osborne's originals, such as "Cream Dream" (featuring that Stevie Wonder harmonica line, a B-3 played by Ivan Neville, and Steve Cropper-style guitar by Jack Petruzzelli), with its sultry female backing chorus (her own voice), is as sexy a blue-eyed soul tune as you're likely to hear. It's a quiet storm stunner. The beautiful horn weave that introduces her "Heart of Stone," layered with strings, tunnels into the heart and brings up the raw material; in this case she's showing the blood, brokenness, and desperation required by her lyrics.
The sweet, mysterious, slightly funky horn section that opens "Eliminate the Night," brings the blues into soul and vice versa. This is a late-night confrontation song. This is a woman, obsessed and hurt, who is trying to find a solution to her dilemma, and both her body and mind twitch against the backbeat. Again, the eros and raw need in the tune are expressed with the full expressive power of Osborne's gift as a singer as well as a writer. The backbone-slippery groove on "I Know What's Goin' On" has the late-night funk despite the canned backbeat. Her voice literally dives into the rhythm section's pocket and comes to the listener unhinged and wise to the fooling around of her lover. Hands on hips, she uses the groove to express the sumptuous sexuality that can only come from her own protagonist's hurt and want: "I'm so angry I could murder/And I'm so lonesome in my mind/I sure wish I didn't love you baby/But you've got me hangin' on your line...." Her own contributions end with "Alone with You," which captures the vibe whole, pure, and simple. This is Philly soul that would make Gamble & Huff proud -- a smooth, hooky love song that floats to the listener. It's the sweetest kind of seduction, where innocence and desire are entwined. The strings play their real part for perhaps the first time on the set, and the rhythm section lets the singer really take the lead, but gives her enough room to stand up tall.
What it all means, actually, is that Osborne has developed into a great modern soul songwriter in the grand tradition. But she still needs some help in picking her material, and needs her producer, Tor Hyams, and string arranger, Tim Davies, to get grittier and loosen the reins -- everything is way too clean and compressed-sounding and doesn't always suit the material here, and there should be more room for surprise and synchronicity between the strings and rhythm section. The great Philly soul records kept an element of grit, as did Motown, because of the live feeling their best records always brought out in the grooves, and Stax was built on pure groove and grease. The horns here, which are arranged impeccably by Greg Osby and Gary Schreiner, should be allowed a place higher in the mix to push the singer. Hyams needs to let Osborne's instrument roam a little more freely and dig even farther into the groove and face off against the rhythm section, because her phrasing and sense of time are unstoppable. This is a solid effort, primarily for the surprise of Osborne's excellent songwriting and backing vocal arrangements. She is the most naturally gifted and disciplined singer of her entire generation, and perhaps one of the last real soul singers. She's still not letting her hair down all the way in the studio, but perhaps the time is coming when she can choose a producer who will push and challenge, not restrain her. In the meantime, this is Joan Osborne's best overall recording, and is highly recommended despite its few shortcomings. ~ Thom Jurek