JOAN OSBORNE Pretty Little Stranger (Vanguard)

Joan Osborne? What, the Captain Beefheart-sampling “One Of Us” lady? Check, and “Pretty Little Stranger” is her fourth album proper and Vanguard debut. Superficially, this collection of covers and originals also sounds a lot like the countrified soft folk-rock of Sheryl Crow and Mary Chapin Carpenter. However, dig a little deeper and you’ll notice that the self-penned material has a distinctly dour tenor, and the other songs selected seem intended to emphasise the downbeat mood. Suddenly it seems as though “Pretty Little Stranger” might be a country-rock breakup album in a similar vein to Rosanne Cash’s astonishing “Interiors”, a tapestry of heartache and regret, the protagonist fumbling towards an uncertain future. What would make or break the connection would be a booklet essay of the calibre of Anthony DeCurtis’ notes to the 2006 reissue of “Interiors”, which, in helpfully grounding the album’s emotional geography in specific terms and events, helped make it great for this listener.

As it is we just have the songs and their performances to pick away at, and, initially at least, they seem pleasant but anonymous, without quite the distinctive lusciousness that sets the new Mindy Smith album (with which “Pretty Little Stranger” shares a great deal of talent, including songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman, guitarist Bryan Sutton and producer Steve Buckingham; Alison Krauss, Vince Gill and - woah! – “Interiors” refugee and former Mr Rosanne Cash Rodney Crowell also contribute) reviewed below apart. It’s when the tingling sensation of familiarity that hovers over the second track resolves itself into the realisation that, yes, it really is The Grateful Dead’s “Brokedown Palace” that you’re hearing, that the suspicion suggests itself that there’s a darker agenda at work behind “Pretty Little Stranger”. Examine the stalker mentality that haunts the title track and “Who Divided”, for example, or the selection of covers: Kris Kristofferson’s “Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends”, the album’s closest concession to straight country, “Till I Get It Right” (originally popularised by Dylan/Elvis sideman Charlie McCoy, who plays vibes here), and “When The Blue Hour Comes” - opening with the bleak pronouncement “The good times are all gone” - on which Osborne captures a measure of co-writer Roy Orbison’s operatic gloom.

So there’s far more to “Pretty Little Stranger” than initially meets the ear, namely the tantalising suggestion that there’s a backstory here that’ll make a brilliant booklet essay when it’s reissued ten or twenty years hence. Until then, we’ll just have to enjoy it for what it sounds like, rather than revel in the grisly open-heart surgery that it may actually be.