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In search of balance, Osborne stumbles

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Even though it was the hit that put Joan Osborne on the map, "One of Us" was not the best song on her 1995 album, "Relish." That honor belonged to "St. Teresa," the beautiful, moody ballad that opened the album.

"St. Teresa" may not have had the sort of lyrical imagination that made "One of Us" resonate with so many listeners, but it understood how to use Osborne's voice, framing bluesy grit without letting her sing a single blues lick.

Osborne goes after a similar balance with her new album, "Righteous Love" (Interscope 101322, arriving in stores today), but with mixed results. In a sense, the album is like the little girl with the curl - when it's good, it's very good, but when it's bad, it's horrid.

Distressingly, it's at its worst on the title track, a swelling, overwrought ballad that finds Osborne coming off like Linda Ronstadt trying to do Bonnie Raitt. All power and no subtlety, it's the sort of performance that leaves you lunging for the volume control, hoping to turn the thing down before the neighbor's dogs start barking.

Osborne also reverts to Blues Mama mode for her remake of Gary Wright's "My Love Is Alive." But there at least the arrangement's rhythmic momentum absorbs much of the vocal's excess, letting her sound soulful instead of strident.

It's when she scales things down, though, that Osborne truly shines. There's a seductive, sinuous quality to her performance on "If I Was Your Man," where her languorous phrasing not only softens the bluesy contours of the melody, but also ties the tune into the hypnotic, Middle Eastern guitar lick that frames the verse. Beguilingly exotic, it's the sort of song that makes you understand why CD players have the replay function.

"Baby Love" is equally endearing. Although the arrangement is driven by a darkly insistent groove, there's something disarmingly offhand about Osborne's delivery. It isn't just that she's singing softly; Osborne almost seems to be toying with the melody, making the chorus - "I'm in baby love again" - seem teasingly appropriate. Imagine Cyndi Lauper sitting in with Morphine and you'll have a sense of just how off-the-wall her approach is here.

Then again, Osborne seems especially suited to atypical pop material. "Safety in Numbers," for instance, is almost an anti-love song, as its protagonist speaks enthusiastically about insulating herself from the world. "No one will ever get near me again," goes one line, and while that's hardly a typical pop sentiment, it's easy to grasp the protagonist's twisted logic after hearing Osborne give voice to the story.

Being better at off-beat fare than typical pop pap may make Osborne a more interesting singer, but it poses problems for "Righteous Love." Having had one big hit, she faces the expectation that there will someday be another, and the most compromised moments on this album stem from an attempt to be obvious and commercial.

A pity, because that undercuts Osborne's greatest strengths. It would be better for her to stick with stuff as sweetly understated as the quietly infectious "To Make You Feel My Love" than bellow her way through a power ballad like this album's title tune.

After all, if we want to hear bellowing, we can always buy Celine Dion.

Joan Osborne

Righteous Love(Interscope 101322)

Sun score: **1/2

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