Joan Osborne

How Sweet It Is

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While 1995's Relish proved Joan Osborne was a smart and idiosyncratic lyricist with a big, strong and soulful voice, the unexpected success of the album (and the single "One Of Us") proved to be as much of a burden as a blessing. Touring kept Osborne out on the road for the next few years, and troubles with her record company prevented her follow-up, Righteous Love, from arriving in stores until 2000, after which it died quickly on the vine (though the album deserved a better fate). As Osborne was blocking out plans for her next album in the fall of 2001, the terrorist attacks of September 11 upended her musical priorities, and for How Sweet It Is, Osborne has indulged herself in the musical equivalent of comfort food by cutting covers of a dozen classic soul and R&B tunes from the 1960s and '70s, with the exception of three reworked rock numbers (Dave Mason's "Only You Know and I Know," the Band's "The Weight," and Jimi Hendrix's "Axis: Bold As Love"). While Osborne devotes herself to vintage material here, for the most part she avoids a retro vibe and, thankfully, avoids the contemporary failing of proving one's soulfulness by bending vocal lines into uncontrollable spasms of melisma. Here, Osborne merges passion with simplicity, while most of the tunes are recast in clean, spare arrangements which capture the classic lines of their melodies without sounding like retreads. And in a season of loss, fear, and mistrust, "Smiling Faces Sometime," "Why Can't We Live Together," and "Love's in Need of Love Today" sound potent and almost painfully relevant in this context, while the bluesy pleasures of "These Arms of Mine" and "I'll Be Around" feel as comforting as a hug and a cup of cocoa. How Sweet It Is is a rare example of an album of covers that doesn't sound like a holding action, and makes clear Joan Osborne is still an artist well worth watching.

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