How Sweet It Is (Womanly Hips/Compendia)
The last thing we need is another singer wringing her hands over 9/11, particularly if it means trivializing or capitalizing on the fear, anger and powerlessness people have felt during the past 12 months. Yet given that many of the earliest reactions to last year’s attacks were either jingoistic anthems or tirades bent on revenge, it’s hardly surprising that some of the more measured and incisive responses to those horrors would take longer to surface. Recent recordings by Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, Chuck D, Sleater-Kinney, The Mekons and Steve Earle certainly fall into this latter category. But perhaps no album wrestles as evocatively and empathetically with the issues that have been on most Americans’ minds since last September as How Sweet It Is, a set of Vietnam-era rock and soul standards that singer Joan Osborne (“One of Us”) reimagines for life in a post-9/11 world.
Osborne didn’t set out to make such a record when she was getting ready to do an album of covers with producer John Leventhal late last summer. After Sept. 11, though, she invariably found herself choosing and reinterpreting material for the project in view of what had happened. The record, which among its 12 tracks includes updates of Aretha’s “Think,” Edwin Starr’s “War” and Timmy Thomas’ ravaged “Why Can’t We Live Together,” could easily have degenerated into a bad karaoke album. Or, as Osborne jokes in her bio, the kind of record a wedding singer might makeor, worse, an exercise in cultural imperialism.
Benefiting from Osborne’s appearance in Standing in the Shadows of Motown (the recent documentary about the Motown studio band The Funk Brothers), as well as her immersion in New York’s DJ and techno culture, How Sweet It Is is none of those things. Instead, enlisting ?uestlove from The Roots to play drums and Meshell Ndegeocello to play bass, Osborne and her collaborators recast the putative “oldies” on the album in a hip-hop-informed neo-soul context. They don’t just present old music in a fresh light, though. They invest it with contemporary relevance, reanimating it in ways that induce listeners to hear the songs’ all-too-familiar lyrics in a new light as wellnamely, in light of the insecurity, hurt and confusion with which we now live.
The album opens with a drum-and-bass reworking of The Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around.” It’s impossible not to hear the first three lines, “This is our fork in the road / Love’s last episode / There’s nowhere to go,” in terms more apocalyptic than they originally were intendedespecially now, as President Bush presses for the U.S. to take military action against Iraq. The same goes for the admonition, “You need me and I need you / Without each other there ain’t nothin’ either can do,” from “Think.” With much the same soulful restraint she demonstrates throughout the album, Osborne’s plea sounds not like a lover’s ultimatum but like terms for achieving solidarity. Foreboding passages like “What I’m about to say could mean the world’s disaster” and “We all must take precautionary measures” (from her version of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today”) echo these themes. Far from an inducement to stock up on gas masks and Cipro, the last line is a call for global unity.
Virtually everything on How Sweet It Is sounds as portentous or uplifting a note as the originals did when they first rang out over the AM airwaves during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. The bumping funk of “Smiling Faces Sometimes” (a duet with Isaac Hayes) captures the cloud of suspicion under which Americans have been living since last September. Osborne’s dirge-like remake of “War” transforms Starr’s protest anthem into a sackcloth-and-ashes lament, while her fragile cover of “These Arms of Mine” throbs for all the people who burn to hold the ones they’ve lost. Empathy also suffuses Osborne’s bittersweet rendition of the title track; her pensive reading of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everybody Is a Star” works both as a paean to the fire fighters, police officers and relief workers who sacrificed so much at Ground Zero and as an affirmation of the sanctity of all life.
Perhaps best of all is how Osborne turns the existential doubt of the lines “My yellow in this case is not so mellow / In fact, I’m trying to say, it’s frightened like me,” from Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold as Love,” into an expression of geopolitical malaise. Indeed, “Bold as Love,” its nod to Jamaican lovers rock deepening its global resonance, might as well be the album’s leitmotif. It certainly took nerve to remake these old standbys and to do it in the name of something as quixotic as love. The record’s primary conceit stems from Osborne’s belief that lovethe power that makes peace and justice possible in the first placeis stronger than violence.
“The face of evil plans to make you its possession / And it will if we let it destroy everybody,” Osborne warns on “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” “You don’t need darkness to do what you think is right,” she adds, in a resolute alto, on “Everybody Is a Star.” This mix of resistance and resilience is what makes How Sweet It Is as prophetic as Dylan’s similarly eschatological “Love and Theft”, and as uplifting as Springsteen’s The Rising. It’s also what enables Osborne’s album to function as the best sort of music criticism: It expands the context in which we hear the material in question, and with it how we view the world and, one hopes during this time of war, how we live our lives.
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