Joan Osborne
Breakfast in Bed
Time Life
2007
C



joan Osborne's Breakfast in Bed feels a bit like an "American Idol" display, without any negative connotations. The point seems to be to give Osborne a chance to show just how good her voice is, most immediately through covers of soul songs, without letting anything else get in the way. For the most part, it's an idea that works. With her performances from Standing in the Shadows of Motown (included here as bonus tracks), Osborne showed that she has a surprisingly rich voice and wonderful control. Over the course of the album, however, the arrangements can't consistently match her quality, revealing how even a great voice can't save a track.

The album's early covers—"I've Got to Use My Imagination," "Ain't No Sunshine," and "Midnight Train to Georgia"—state her case most effectively. On "Ain't No Sunshine" (which should get an annual appearance on "Idol"), Osborne develops phrasing similar to the original Bill Withers version, but keeps her own vocal mark on it with her alto's open tone and emotional fortitude. For "Midnight Train," she provides a more understated delivery than we'd expect; not only does this change the mood of the song, but it opens up a more ambiguous meaning to the song (if not the lyric) than we usually hear. Why should a vocalist render "I'd rather live in his world than live without him in mine" in the triumphant manner we so often get? Osborne's level approach keeps the song matter-of-fact without utterly disavowing either the desperation or hope of the piece.

The vocals are nearly infallible throughout the disc, but it doesn't add to up a fully successful album. Osborne's songwriting compares favorably with her covers—songs like "Baby Is a Butterfly" and "Heart of Stone" fit in perfectly—but the arrangements, never unusual, wear out their welcome. For what's essentially a soul disc, there's too little use of rhythm and too many strings. Where she could have been influenced by something like "Walk on By," Osborne seems to have only watered-down some Motown roots to fit into a lounge (Simon would reference hotel music when discussing the heavy-handed leisure-schmaltz of "Alone With You"). It's an extremely safe approach, and on a commercial front it swings her audience away from R&B; fans and toward older general fans in need of easy comfort.

Even Osborne falters once, on the dull "Natural High." The dreamy arrangement doesn’t help, but Osborne would have been wise to discard it before the album's release because her voice oddly thins out in the higher ranges. On a singing competition, earlier performances might have garnered her enough votes to keep going, but there's no reason to keep this performance when multiple takes or trashcans are available. This song's placement after "Breakfast in Bed" and "Cream Dream" (whose titles aptly suggest the somnambulistic arrangements) nearly grinds the album to a halt. "Heart of Stone" barely provides enough energy to recover. These arrangements and the consistent use of mid-tempo turn potentially good songs into forgettable recordings.

The argument could be made that a great singer should be able to overcome her backing band's faults, but that's only true to a point. To some extent we even see it here; Osborne's vocals are capable of carrying mediocre performances to better levels. Unfortunately, talent and technical skill aren't the only parts of a recording, and Breakfast in Bed reminds us the other parts can not only highlight a great vocal, they can also drag one down.



Reviewed by: Justin Cober-Lake
Reviewed on: 2007-05-23
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