Joan Osborne’s latest CD is equal parts homage to the canon of Americana songwriters and an old pro courting a stunning new muse; it’s also one of the year’s best records. Conceived in New York and executed, with the help of ace producer Steve Buckingham (Dolly Parton, Shania Twain), in Nashville, “Pretty Little Stranger” walks the country/soul line with an agility not seen since Ray Charles discovered George Jones.
In recent years, Osborne took a break from solo work and toured with the remaining members of the Grateful Dead. She gives their “Brokedown` Palace” a plaintive tone missing in the original. Patty Griffin’s “Silver Bell” continues to be the most-covered unreleased record in recent memory. The Dixie Chicks, the Wreckers and Griffin herself have borrowed from it, though the original still languishes in A&M’s vaults. Osborne’s version of “What You Are” is the best of the bunch. Buckingham frames the spare precision of Griffin’s lyrics with delicate, yet majestic slide guitar and keyboard flourishes in the manner of the Eagles’ “Last Resort.”
Osborne channels Linda Ronstadt’s early Capitol releases on a reverent reworking of Kris Kristofferson’s “Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends,” a song that won Ronnie Millsap a Grammy in 1974, and “Time Won’t Tell,” with Vince Gill providing a silky harmony. She also does a credible job with the tears-in-my-beer jukebox weeper, “Till I Get It Right.”
The tributes are good, but Osborne’s original contributions are superlative. “After Jane” equates friendship and lost love – “I lie awake and wonder all night long,” she sings with tantalizing ambiguity. “Who Divided” serves up a slice of the righteous rhythm and blues which drove mid-90’s hits like “Spider Web” and “Right Hand Man,” with studio veteran Michael Rhodes’ thumping bass line, smoky organ and a snarling, pained refrain.
She duets with Alison Krauss for the pure, lilting “Holy Water.” On the rootsy, stripped-down “Shake That Devil,” Bryan Sutton’s spare banjo supplies a perfect counterpoint to the song’s dogged determination. There’s a bevy of first-rate studio help throughout the whole album. Rodney Crowell, Union Station’s Dan Tyminski and steel guitar ace Dan Dugmore all pitch in. Among the best guest appearances is Louisiana slide guitar wizard Sonny Landreth’s contribution to the funky “Dead Roses.”
The record’s centerpiece is the title cut, a song which depicts a self-destructive race away from lost love and into the lonely city. Suggesting the darker side of Rosanne Cash’s modern country, it brims with vivid lines like “there is a Spanish boy who also rides the A train/I want to tag him like a tiger.” “I wonder who will the next fool be?” sings Osborne, as she prowls the streets with a seemingly unquenchable desire.
A balancing act of unleashed libido and soul-searching regret fuels “Pretty Little Stranger,” a soulful fury slouching out of New York City’s dark avenues and into the neon of Nashville. Seldom has so vast a distance been bridged so artfully.