Considering her ongoing emergence as a first-rate interpretive singer—her contributions stand as the highpoints of both the Standing in the Shadows of Motown soundtrack and 2004’s excellent Dolly Parton tribute album, Just Because I’m A Woman—and the breadth of styles she’s tackled over the course of her career, it isn’t too surprising that Joan Osborne’s debut for Vanguard is an understated, heady, country-leaning collection. Pretty Little Stranger shows that, along with adult alternative, MOR pop, blues, jam-band, and vintage R&B, country is a style that Osborne can sing as well as just about anyone.
While she certainly has the vocal chops to record a singer’s album, what impresses most about Pretty Little Stranger is the song selection and how Osborne and producer Steve Buckingham eschew flashy vocal runs and production gimmicks that would draw attention away from those songs. The approach is restrained, but it’s also respectful. After all, three of the genre’s all-time best vocalists (George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Trisha Yearwood) have all recorded versions of Red Lane and Larry Henley’s “Till I Get It Right,” so Osborne approaches the song with the thoughtfulness it deserves. Elsewhere, her reworking of The Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace” is inspired, showing an understanding of why the song is a comfortable fit alongside standout tunes from Patty Griffin, Rodney Crowell, and Kris Kristofferson.
If not consistently of the same quality as her choices of cover songs, Osborne’s originals hold their own in such fine company, with the nervy “Who Divided” drawing from her roots as a soul singer and the hard country imagery of “Holy Waters” illustrating why country music makes a good home for a wayward soul singer. The past few years have seen several VH1 acts (Sheryl Crow, Bon Jovi, Michelle Branch, and even Hootie & The Blowfish) and a whole mess of indie kids (Cat Power, The Elected, and Jenny Lewis) make the occasional foray into country music, but Osborne has recorded a more convincing country album than any of them. Pretty Little Stranger only scratches the surface of what she could do were she to stick around long enough to record an album that’s a little bit riskier.