Review: “Relish” by Joan Osborne (CD, 1995)

Today’s POP RESCUE from a fate uncertain, is the 1995 debut studio album Relish by American singer songwriter Joan Osborne. Will this album be a tasty listen, or should you turn to God for help? Read on….

Joan Osborne - Relish (1995) album cover
Joan Osborne – Relish (1995) album

This 12 track album opens with second single St. Teresa. It opens with some wonderful mandolin, that’s set against Joan’s vocals. Her voice hints at a pending rock vocal, but this song remains light as the guitars and mandolin sit alongside her voice. The light shuffling beat and bass keep out of their way allowing those instruments and Joan to shine. A chant joins in, which is a nice touch. The track though, doesn’t build much further and just wanders along for its 5m 22s duration. It failed to repeat the eventual success of her lead single One Of Us, stalling at #33 in the UK. It is her second and final single to chart in the UK to date.

Next is Man In The Long Black Coat, a 1989 song written by legendary growler, Bob Dylan. Joan’s voice pretty well suits covering a croaky Dylan song. There’s an electric piano lightly tiptoeing in the background as guitars accompany Joan through the track. I’m reminded here of Allison Moorer, or… well, Bob Dylan and sermon style of some Nick Cave tracks. Once again, Joan gets to show off that voice, which shines well in the chorus particularly about halfway through before the electric guitar solo. It’s a nice miserable song.

Third single Right Hand Man follows this, and this gives us a burst of energy and it stays throughout. The tempo is up, and the electric guitar and bass suggest a nice roaring rock song. Instead, Joan’s opening lyrics sound like your mum checking that you’ve packed for your holiday. Here again, she vocally sounds like Allison Moorer, but also of contemporary chart-botherer, Sheryl Crow. Very occasionally, I can hear that rock vocal sound that you’d catch from Tina Turner. This song is more up-beat, and should have grabbed some UK chart action, but sadly didn’t – possibly because of artists like Sheryl Crow who had established themselves in the UK singles chart just before Joan.

Pensacola follows this. The tempo is down, and in this track, Joan is underscored with subdued chugging guitars, a harmonica and bass, and they sit perfectly to allow her vocals to dominate the track perfectly. The vocals are narrative, giving the song a journey to follow, and it builds slowly, adding more backing vocals and guitar as it builds. It’s a plodder.

Next up is Dracula Moon, beginning almost sinisterly with chugging guitar alongside bass. Joan’s vocals are also on par singing about bones and disease – “Don’t feel sorry for me” she sings. The harmonica weaves throughout as the song winds along, eventually duelling with the guitars. Joan’s vocal power and range is in full exhibition mode here, and I can easily imagine this song on some 90’s vampire horror movie soundtrack.

Next up has the funny little rhyme at the start, before that very familiar guitar sequence of lead single One Of Us. It then fully bursts open and gives us that rich, familiar, old friend that we remember as a UK hit upon its second release. It reached #6 in the UK singles chart, and understandably so. Whilst it’s a fairly mid-tempo song, the wave of sound set alongside Joan’s vocals, imagining a God doing everyday things like riding a bus.

Piano and guitar chase each other around in the intro of Ladder, the album’s fourth and final single in 1997, as Joan warms up the vocals that lead into the verse. Once into the flow of the song, the melody finds itself alongside Joan’s voice, and the repeating ‘heyheyhey yeah’ backing chanting vocals help to keep it brewing. However, there’s a fair bit of what sounds like vocal ad lib towards the end and I’m left wondering where the song thought it was going.

Spider Web is next. There’s a load of instruments nestled in this track including a ‘rhythm collage’, a mellotron, and ‘actual fiddle’ and a ‘virtual fiddle’. We’re back to Moorer territory, perhaps aided by the collection of fiddles that give it a more country sound. The percussion keeps this song flowing along, and Joan’s brooding vocals alongside the backing vocals give it a nice sound.

Growling guitars open Let’s Just Get Naked, reminding me fairly swiftly of If It Makes You Happy, but then swiftly switching to the vocal style of Wendy James of Transvision Vamp meets Lou Reed. Joan’s vocals here sound a bit too bored and aloof that they can’t be bothered to cooperate with the melody in this song. The result is a song that I don’t care about either, and it deteriorates after about the 4 minute mark.

Help Me, gives us a chugging bluesy sounding track with Joan asking us to help her. The sound is no mistake, as it’s a cover of the blues artist Sonny Boy Williamson song. Unfortunately, the deterioration of the previous song has continued with her vocals, and it makes the song hard to listen, although does add to the desperation of the pleas. However, the musicians here are delivering a wonderful track. Vocally, this just sounds like a jam session was recorded with some musicians who know each other well.

Penultimate track Crazy Baby follows this and we’re back up to a much stronger sound. Joan shows off some more tuneful vocals here adding warmth by the bucketload, as the musicians underline her with a wonderfully slick sounding song. Once again, we’re treading the Moorer and Crow line, but she does so perfectly and this results in quite a nice song.

The album closes with Lumina, a mellow song setting softer vocals from Joan alongside a guitar and synth. You could almost imagine that this was a missing song from Madonna‘s Frozen album. The track did make it into an episode of The Sopranos.

Joan Osborne’s lead single ‘One Of Us’.

Verdict

Over all, this album is just about okay.

If you like your downbeat guitar indie female rock artists, then this album is going to work for you, perhaps better than it did for us. The highlights are One Of Us, Right Hand Man, and Spider Web, and Lumina is a really nice song too, but almost more of a lullaby.

Joan’s success in the UK was inevitably scuppered by the glut of indie artists in the mid 1990s, and the few female artists in that genre that did succeed (and yes, it was only a few!), dominated the charts amongst the indie man bands. Sheryl Crow’s earlier success in the UK, and that of Alanis Morissette undoubtedly helped to divert attention from Joan.

That said, the album has some wonderful musicianship, but occasionally Joan’s vocals are uncomfortable. The low points are Let’s Just Get Naked and the cover of Help Me. Neither of these sound tuneful, and were definitely the album at its worst.

Still, she managed to cut through with One Of Us, and that inevitably helped to deliver this album to #5. I wonder how many of those shoppers have kept their CD?

Rated 3 stars! It's a nice album.
  • POP RESCUE 2021 RATING: 3 / 5
  • 1995 UK ALBUM CHART PEAK: #5, certified Gold by the BPI.
  • POP RESCUE COST: £1.00 from a Poundland store.

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