JOAN OSBORNE – Trouble And Strife

For almost everyone, Joan Osborne will be best remembered for her mid nineties hit ‘One of Us’, but her long career has thrown up so many other gems along the way. Even that mega-hit’s parent album, 1995’s ‘Relish’ featured far superior tracks: with ‘Spider Web’, she introduced the world to her sassy blend of blues and soul via an insatiable groove and sultry vocal and her cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Man In The Long Black Coat’, slowed down to a spooky crawl, ran rings around Zimmerman’s rather jerky original recording. Across several other far more neglected albums, Joan’s vocal talents continued to shine. ‘Dead Roses’, a particular highlight from her 2006 release ‘Pretty Little Stranger’, suggested she could rival Bonnie Raitt in the bluesy stakes; various cuts from 2012’s ‘Bring It On Home’ demonstrated her husky take on various R&B standards to great effect and 2017’s ‘Songs of Bob Dylan’ had plenty to offer anyone with a keen interest in different takes on a familiar back-catalogue. Wherever you choose to dip into Joan’s work, there’s something to enjoy…and always a nagging feeling that she should have been bigger. Perhaps her over reliance on other people’s material has hindered her being a star on a global scale, but there’s no questioning her vocal talent. However, none of her previous highlights are a match for her 2020 release ‘Trouble and Strife’.

The album reflects the turbulent era in which it was created with various socially conscious lyrics, but manages to balance out any heavy vibes with music that’s almost guaranteed to make you feel good. This approach is at its most direct on ‘What’s That You Say’, an attack on the right wing attitudes to immigration in the US (peppered by spoken word passages courtesy of Texan artist Ana Maria Rea, who arrived in the States as a child). The lyrics constantly jibe and question those making the big decisions; the spoken passages make it abundantly clear that racist attitudes and a border wall instigated the need to speak out. Lyrically, it reflects the sad age in which the song was written, but the music harks back to a distant past of seventies funk grooves. There’s so much played here by Osborne’s backing band that draws influence from old Rufus/Sly Stone jams and, as such, it promises an instant love for fans of the style. ‘Panama’ suggests “the meek are in jail / the wicked are in charge” before accusing those in power of looking after their own interests and killing innocent people via environmental ignorance. Set against a heavy drum loop, deep bass and – eventually – a barrage of hard-edged bluesy guitars, Osborne really impresses with a rich, yet smoky vocal. Occasionally, the track calls back to her breakthrough album ‘Relish’ and it’s bluesier moments, but more often falls in line with the more contemporary Tedeschi Trucks Band with its ability to bring a classic style into the present. Another vaguely Tedeschi-esque vibe cuts through ‘Take It Any Way I Can Get It’, a jam-band juggernaut that’s big on riffs and even bigger on sass. Musically, everything is driven by a huge drum part, but the heavy rhythms are counterbalanced by more classic 70s vibes, big on country rock guitar sounds, peppered with gospel tinged backing vocals. Through it all, there’s Joan, absolutely brimming with confidence and huge in voice.

Tackling another funk groove, ‘Meat & Potatoes’ uses a sparser feel to highlight a deep bass and ominous keys against a vocal that’s a little more understated. On first listen, there’s very little here that’s recognisable as “classic Joan Osborne” of old, but between a huge swagger, a fine multi-tracked guitar part cutting through on occasion and what eventually asserts itself as a strong hook, there’s more than enough to pull listeners back in for repeated listening. Switching the mood once again, the title cut goes for a classic country rock sound, all freight train drumming and hard twanged guitar. Lyrically, it takes more barbs at the US of 2020, but the performance never sounds heavy handed or forced in any way; between a very Raitt-esque vocal and a band in full flight, it’s a very natural performance. Of particular note is the retro keyboard sound lurking beneath the driving country grooves – Keith Cotton doesn’t ever choose to dominate, but adds so much colour to the musical palate, suggesting he’s capable of playing up a storm. It’s the kind of track you can spin over and over without things becoming stale. Staying with the overtly political, ‘That Was A Lie’ tackles the subject of using someone to deliver a message that is blatantly untrue. Like the best moments of ‘Trouble and Strife’, any potential for its message to bring down the listener is countered by great music and, here, echoes of great 70s blues rock and jam band sounds really come into the own, with great slide guitar work, full bodied backing harmonies and a commanding lead from Osborne herself. On a few other albums, this would easily be a standout track. The fact that it isn’t necessarily a standout here speaks volumes about the high quality throughout the rest of ‘Trouble & Strife’…

Opting for a slightly darker sound, ‘Hands Off’ blends a Bonnie Raitt-esque blues sound with a stomping groove befitting of Jack White. Always giving guitarist Jack Pretruzzelli plenty of room to move, the main riff is hard and dominant, but never in a way that upstages a brilliant vocal. Instrumentally speaking, it’s harder blues stance is perfect for a full blown, aggressive solo. Although ‘Trouble and Strife’ arguably features a couple of better songs, this is definitely a guitar playing highlight. More in keeping with Osborne’s prior soul excursions, ‘Whole Wide World’ is a moody number that takes elements of the Stax sound and pairs that retro charm with a couple of nods to sixties rock via a hard guitar tone. Osborne’s voice, meanwhile, is given free rein to cover a wide spectrum of sounds. The verses capture an understated charm, before the chorus hook – more of a slow burner than the bulk of this record – allows her to rise into a full scale cry.

With ten captivating tunes and no filler, ‘Trouble & Strife’ is easily Joan Osborne’s finest forty minutes. The music has a confidence that takes influence from lots of 60s and 70s classics, redressed for a twenty first century audience; the vocals are amazing – Osborne’s voice has improved with age – and the overall sound is that of a potential classic. Doubtless, many will immediately think of the overplayed ‘One of Us’ and quickly move on without giving this proper attention, but by doing so, those people will miss an album that could easily stand alongside classics by Melissa Etheridge, Bonnie Raitt and Patty Griffin. If your familiarity with Osborne’s work is limited to the mid 90s and you’re somehow unsure as to whether this is worth making time for…don’t be. ‘Trouble and Strife’ is a fantastic record.

September 2020