- Artist: Joan Osborne
- Title: Relish
- Released: 1995
- Format: CD
- Genre: Folk/Pop/Rock
- Beverage of Choice: Top Shelf Margarita
It’s not often that I remember exactly where I was or what I was doing the first time I hear a particular song or record. In this case however I can easily recall and picture the circumstances; I’d flown from Johannesburg to Cape Town in late 1995 to meet with my business colleagues and, after a long day in the office, one of the team offered me a ride to my hotel. As he started up the car, the first track on this album, “St. Teresa“, spun up on CD really loud, and I was totally blown away by Joan Osborne‘s presence. She was right there in the car with us, singing directly to my mind and heart. I asked him to stop at a local music store and bought the album right there and then.
This is unusual for me as I normally spend time considering alternatives before I spend money on (yet another) record. I’ve never regretted the purchase though as the music has repaid the cost in many multiples of pleasure over the past twenty-five years. The other notable thing that made the event unusual is that in 1995 I had Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” , Tricky’s “Maxinquaye”, PJ Harvey’s “To Bring You My Love” and Smashing Pumpkin’s “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” on heavy rotation along with the regular metal, rock, blues and alternative CDs that were always playing on the car and home systems. (Remember, CDs were still a thing, no streaming yet!) I had mentally written off Relish as ‘pop’ (i.e. beneath contempt) due to the success of arguably the least interesting song on the album “One of Us“. Undeniably catchy, the song charted at #1 in many countries and #2 on the Billboard Mainstream Top 40. Well, I was wrong and not for the first (or last time) when it comes to the record.
The album ended up being nominated for Album of the Year as well as Best New Artist for Osborne. All for a very good reason; she is an amazing talent. As part of a seasoned songwriting team, at 33 years old, Osborne had a strong hand in directing her own artistic vision. And, that voice. Only a handful of female vocalists leap out from a recording like she does; Aretha, Adele, Amy Winehouse and Janis Joplin come to mind when I hear her sing and, in my opinion, Osborne holds her own in such illustrious company.
A lot of credit for the overall quality of the album must go to producer Rick Chertoff; the arrangements are extremely satisfying with great musical cohesion and clarity. The mix is clear and crisp with an overall tightness and balance that enhances the listening experience without calling attention to itself. Instrumentation includes mandolin, sax, harmonica, electric piano, acoustic and electric guitar, my beloved Hammond organ, percussion and fiddle – all the right ingredients for a set that has such an eclectic mix of styles. (Compare “Dracula Moon”, “Lumina” and “Spider Web”).
Osborn also clearly benefited from a core team of session musicians that were all recognized and at the top of their game. Eric Bazilian (who wrote “One of Us”) and Rob Hyman were both members of the Hooters, Mark Egan had contributed to hundreds of recordings by playing bass and trumpet, and Andy Kravitz on drums is also a multi Grammy-winning artist. This core group co-wrote most of the songs with Osborne; there are two covers on the album (Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me“) and they serve to highlight Osborne and the group’s range and musical dexterity.
Now to my favorite song in all of Osborne’s catalog, and it’s one that she wrote solo – “Crazy Baby”. At 6:33 it’s not only the longest song on the set but, in my opinion, the most tightly focused on her voice as an instrument. Her passionate delivery keens and moans, pleading with the subject (lover/friend/self?) to ‘hold on tight’; it soars and flexes, wrapping itself around the wonderful combination and phrasing of electric piano and guitar. I’ve probably played this song a few hundred times and I get goosebumps every time I hear Osborne’s voice get ragged in the ultimate chorus singing ‘the light, the light’ over and over, urging a broken and desperate listener to keep it together for one more night.
Invest an hour in this album and it will repay you with an honest, soulful and satisfying musicality that is becoming harder and harder to find in these digital times.