Breakfast in Bed
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2007, Volume 14, #6
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Tue June 12, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Since storming out of the gate with a #1 hit (One of Us) more than 10 years ago, Joan Osborne has been struggling to regain her momentum. While she is a skilled artist and a gifted interpreter of other writers’ songs, it, nonetheless, is tempting to wonder whether she curses her early success. After all, the pressure implied by mass exposure and expectation has ruined the careers of performers who are greater than she. Consequently, Osborne deserves respect not only for her perseverance, but also for continuing to toil away in an effort to find her own place on the map of popular music. Having spent the better part of the last decade switching styles and searching for direction, her new album Breakfast in Bed goes a long way toward establishing a suitable venue for her considerable talent.
After losing her major label recording contract when subsequent releases failed to live up to the sales potential of Relish, her debut, Osborne spent several years exploring different musical forms by working with top artists in genres as diverse as Qawaali, R&B, and country. She obviously learned a lot from her exposure to these performers, which I was lucky to discover while teaching in Dharamsala, India in 1998. That year Osborne gave a concert for Tibetan Refugees in the city that serves as the Dalai Lama’s residence-in-exile. Fresh from studying with Pakistani Qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Osborne sang her hits and other standards in a powerful, swooping voice that recalled the Sufi master’s hypnotic vocal style. At that moment, I realized that Osborne was an interpretive force to be reckoned with, and her magnificent performance before the assembled crowd of Tibetan monks and nuns stands as a highlight among the hundreds of concerts that I have attended in the last 30 years. Unfortunately, the planned release of this show on CD and DVD was never realized.
Since then, Osborne has worked, most notably, on Standing in the Shadows of Motown, though she also has logged time on high-profile tours with The Dead and Phil Lesh & Friends. Her two performances from the Motown film (Heatwave and What Becomes of the Broken Hearted) are collected as bonus tracks on Breakfast in Bed, and they serve to put her new recording into context. They also confirm her mastery of the R&B form, which, for the record, she also demonstrated when she toured with The Dead in 2003. Her energy and power helped to resurrect The Dead’s stage show — which had become somewhat tired and routine — and the versions of China Doll, Hard to Handle, and Sugaree that she belted during the group’s run at Red Rocks were revelatory. She brought The Dead’s tired veterans outside themselves, which was made evident by her ability to get Phil Lesh to smile as she bumped and grinded her way into each performer’s sacrosanct corner, upsetting their well-worn routines and protected spaces. In short, she acted as a perfect foil for them. However, regardless of how enjoyable these appearances were (and may still be) for her, she obviously realized that this, in itself, wasn’t enough to resurrect her career, let alone to redefine it in a way that had some meaning.
Following her tour with The Dead in 2003, Osborne released How Sweet It Is, a collection of R&B-flavored cuts that confirmed the power of her voice but did little either to increase the breadth of her artistry or to advance her career. She followed this release with a country album Pretty Little Stranger, which was issued last year. As a nod to the Deadheads who have become an increasingly important part of her new audience, the collection contained a lovely, though unremarkable, version of the Grateful Dead’s Brokedown Palace. Otherwise, the outing was overproduced, and it totally lacked songs and performances that were interesting.
Given the up and down nature of her recent career arc, there is a lot riding on Breakfast in Bed, Osborne’s newest release. Thankfully, it is at least a step in the right direction, and it does manage to rectify some of her recent missteps. Returning to the R&B orientation that she previously had embraced on both Standing in the Shadows of Motown and How Sweet It Is, Osborne has put together a classic-sounding album. In fact, on several of Breakfast in Bed’s tracks, she employed some of the great original musicians from the Muscle Shoals, Stax, and Motown eras to perform with her. Boasting a mixture of originals and classics, the outing makes it easy to hear where Osborne’s shortcomings lie. She is in possession of an extremely supple and powerful voice — one that could transform her from a good singer into a powerful performer, if only she could find material that was well suited to her talent. This is most evident when listening to the cover songs on Breakfast in Bed.
When Osborne takes on old chestnuts like Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine and Hall and Oates’ Sara Smile, both of which have been heard and played a million times before, she manages to put not just heart and soul but also some muscle and erotic oomph into them, creating a new listening experience out of tired, old standards. In the same way that Aretha Franklin was able to take any song — even tunes as rampantly performed as Bridge over Troubled Water — and turn the most wan and insipid lyrics into vocal tours de force, Osborne has learned how to get inside a lyric in order to bring the soul of a composition into her interpretation of it. With Breakfast in Bed, Osborne has learned to control and direct her voice. She has no hesitation in going down on a lyric and coaxing every bit of authentic emotion out of it. She has learned to do this without over-emoting, and throughout the endeavor, she delivers every lyric not only with commitment but also with an increasingly personal voice. Indeed, her version of Gladys Knight and the Pips’ Midnight Train to Georgia is, all by itself, worth the price of the disc.
The problems with Breakfast in Bed lie completely in the inadequacy of the original compositions. In an attempt to emulate the lyrical sensibilities of ’60s-imbued R&B, without acknowledging that the world has changed since the heyday of Stax and Motown, Osborne unwittingly has written songs that are filled with clichéd lyrics, truisms, and pat phrases. Like many other classic forms of music — such as the blues and country — R&B’s musical aesthetics are beautiful and timeless, but this old-school lyrical approach and attitude have become dated. As a result, a lot of Osborne’s newly penned tunes fall into the trap of sounding awkward and forced. Even though they are beautifully crafted and arranged with wonderful vocal and musical performances, the songs often go nowhere, and they do not hold the interest of the listener. Ironically, given the strained lyrical structures, they often sound as if they are lacking in soul and emotion.
These criticisms aside, Breakfast in Bed is an enjoyable disc from an artist who just now is starting to hit her stride. Once she is in possession of a better collection of original songs — or, for that matter, a sympathetic writing partner — Osborne will be in a position to demonstrate the subtlety and maturity of her vocal development. It’s only then that she will succeed in surpassing her groundbreaking early work and show the world the music she is capable of creating and performing.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box