While studying film at New York University in the ’80s, Kentucky émigré Joan Osborne began haunting Manhattan’s clubs, finding and taking any opportunity to sing in public. With a strong if unsteady voice, she went through phases of dedication to the blues, R&B and Janis Joplin hippie rock — all of which are exhibited in Soul Show, a self-released live album recorded clearly with a rocking quartet before an enthusiastic New York house. Other than wobbly pitch, a dubious set of covers, too much coquettish vampery and the crazed miasmic over-emoting would-be belters typically mistake for genuine conviction, Osborne does herself proud in a showcase that foreshadows her pop future: she overcooks “Son of a Preacher Man” until the pot turns black, never gets a hoarse handle on her brisk run at Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” and absurdly attempts to turn “Lady Madonna” into a roadhouse standard. Osborne fares best as a soulful singer/songwriter on two strong originals: “Crazy Baby,” which she redid on her studio album, and the ready-for-Raitt “Match Burn Twice” extract from, rather than attempt to swallow whole, her influences.
Still not on her final approach to stardom liftoff, Osborne cut a three-song CD single named for her properly bizarre studio cover of Captain Beefheart’s offbeat “His Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles.” (The post-stardom Early Recordings is an eleven-song distillation of Osborne’s first two releases.)
Then came Relish, the album that made Osborne a textbook overnight sensation in 1995. With help from some canny pop formalists, she swept out of the post-Bonnie Raitt breezeway — that Sheryl Crow inversion of the progression from folk into rock — to emerge as a sturdy, forthright all-American singer able to bring the trappings of rustic blues (complete with the raunchy big mama sexuality white men find so seductive when it comes from hip, attractive white women) to the video era. The original Cyndi Lauper team — producer Rick Chertoff and the Hooters’ core of keyboardist Rob Hyman and guitarist Eric Bazilian-co-wrote, performed and produced Relish, a bionic simulation of flesh and blood.
Using her husky alto in a variety of intonations but occasionally getting mighty careless with those pesky notes, Osborne manages an agile balance of mainstream juice, arty pretension (“Spider Web” is a coy Lyle Lovett-styled fantasy about Ray Charles) and touchstone tradition (again making lame work of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me,” with Gary Lucas on guitar and Osborne doing her best to sound completely wasted). Subject-wise, she juggles sex (the woozy “Let’s Just Get Naked” and “Right Hand Man,” which credits a Beefheart sample) and spirituality (“St. Teresa”) just as so many conflicted greats have. “One of Us,” a smartly crafted Bazilian original that inexplicably begins with an unrelated field recording (similar to a gimmick Lauper once employed), wittily wonders “What if God was one of us?/Just a slob like one of us/Just a stranger on the bus.” The song musters the blasé sentiment that “An’ yeah, yeah, God is great” but then can’t resist unfurling a few extra bolts of theological cuteness: “Tryin’ to make his way home/Like a holy rollin’ stone…Nobody calling on the phone/’Cept for the Pope maybe in Rome.” Relish is nice on top, but the album’s main course is already a little off.