When Joan Osborne released her chart-topping Relish album on Mercury way back in 1995, she worked with the production team of Rick Chertoff, Rob Hyman, and Eric Bazilian. That album yielded the single "One of Us," which has become a culturally ubiquitous song. It points to spiritual questions and ambivalence, but it also underscores the Lilith Fair period in pop music. Since that time, Osborne has recorded five more albums of varying quality (including a Christmas record), issued a greatest-hits comp, and was an integral part of the film and soundtrack for Standing in the Shadows of Motown; she was also an occasional member of theGrateful Dead's touring ensemble for a couple of years. She's done soul, singer/songwriter, and adult pop albums, but none of them, despite their aesthetic merit, have ever scored anything close to the popular acclaim as Relish did.
On Little Wild One, released on the Suguaro Records label, Osborne reunites the award-winning team that produced Relish and has written 9 of 11 songs with its various members. The album is consciously directed less at showcasing the force of nature that is her singing voice, and more toward showcasing her as a chanteuse of sophisticated, songwriter-oriented pop and soft rock. As a group, this quartet works well together. There is a seamless quality to these songs and their performances that is cohesive yet fluid. The opening track, "Hallelujah in the City," is a clear stunner; both a prayer to some nebulous spiritual force and a revisiting of "One of Us"'s spiritual ambivalence from the other side; there is real reverence here, but ultimately we have no idea who this statement of need is directed toward: God? A betrayed loved one? A Muse? Its military snare, open, ringing electric guitars, hurdy-gurdy, and piano offer a framework for an anthem and Osborne delivers it but subtly. Her voice is wide and clear, singing both to the heavens and to her adopted hometown of New York City, which is both a topical and a poetic muse on Little Wild One and is referenced on numerous cuts. It gives way to "Sweeter Than the Rest," a midtempo, minor-key rocker that, because of its electric 12-string electric guitars, is reminiscent of some of Tom Petty's earlier work -- jazz bassist Mark Egan also returns from the Relish roster to play bass here and on other select cuts on the disc.
The title track features Osborne on vocals and Bazilian on everything else. It's a paean to wild desire delivered without overt force that contains a maximum of direct, unsubtle sensuality. There is a conscious debt to Bo Diddley on "Rodeo," it's framed with that wonderful, shuffling rhythmic structure and expands from there. One of the covers here is a contemporary -- nearly unrecognizable -- reading of the Rev. Gary Davis' "Light of This World." The set closes with an old-timey, gospel-style ballad called "Bury Me on the Battery," another homage to New York. Only Hyman accompanies Osborne and her guitar on his warm, upright piano. It's a beautiful closer to a varied set of tracks that does nothing to put Osborne in a cage, but serves to give notice that in her ongoing restless career, she's not above revisiting periods where the creative process of collaboration was symbiotic as well as successful. ~ Thom Jurek