How much grit and growl you like in your pop music is like creamer in coffee — it’s a personal thing, though most would agree there’s such a thing as overkill. Three great ‘90s singer/songwriters, who all deserve to be much higher on the cultural radar than they are but whom, for various and far-ranging reasons have become victims of zeitgeist nonchalance, released new albums this year that are sadly in serious danger of falling through the cracks.
What’s most surprising is that the two who’ve always been known for rough, sometimes aggressive vocals — Joan Osborne and Ashley Cleveland — have reined in the rougher edges while Sophie B. Hawkins, whose voice has always been a scion of crystalline clarity, sounds sandier and patchier than ever. But in a good way.
It’s a minor miracle that these albums were released at all considering the solid decade of record industry upheaval. There’s little cushion left to support veteran but not top-selling artists, so they’re left to their own devices. They each deserve kudos for soldiering on.
Joan Osborne had done a few indie projects but had — by galaxies — her biggest commercial season in 1995 and 1996 with the album “Relish,” buoyed by her monster hit “One of Us” (which only sounds like a novelty at first; it really has staying power).
Her follow-up, 2000’s “Righteous Love,” took forever to come out. “Bring it One Home,” which dropped in March, is the latest in a string of quasi-concept albums. It’s mostly covers and skews heavy in the blues/R&B vein and sizzles with classy takes on second-tier standards. Unless you’re a historian, there will be cuts here that are new to you as they were to me. Osborne skillfully finds material here that’s not too obscure but not super obvious either (joanosborne.com). Standouts are the fun Ray Charles cover “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” the hard-grooving “Shake Your Hips” and the raucously up tempo “Roll Like a Big Wheel.”
Sophie B. Hawkins managed massive hits on her first two albums — “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Love” from 1992’s “Tongues and Tails” and “As I Lay Me Down” from 1994’s masterpiece “Whaler,” but hit tougher times, at least commercially, by the end of the decade with 1999’s “Timbre.” Her new album, “The Crossing” dropped in June and is her first release since 2004’s uneven-but-still-worthy “Wilderness.”
“The Crossing” is a rich and subversive record that needs several listens to sink in. Initially it sounds pleasant enough but not earth shattering, but slowly its jazzy, wrenching torch songs sneak up on your consciousness and you realize it has several great moments — the bluesy “Heart & Soul of a Woman,” the climax-stoking “Gone Baby” and the deliciously melodic “The Land the Sea and the Sky.” Hawkins includes acoustic remakes of her two monster hits — “Damn” and “Lay” — as bonus cuts and they’re so raw and bare, it’s almost startling. Startlingly effective, too, and wondrous to hear in such unvarnished style (sophiebhawkins.com).
Ashley Cleveland may have the smallest sales of the three but she’s also got three Grammys, all in the rock/gospel category where she set up camp in the early ‘90s after a commercially unfruitful launch at Atlantic with 1991’s “Big Town,” a great and criminally overlooked album, by the way. Her later albums, like 2002’s “Second Skin” and “2006’s “Before the Daylight’s Shot” aren’t as solid as her earlier work, but records like 1993’s “Bus Named Desire” and 1995’s “Lesson of Love” are so masterful, it would be hard for anything to stand up against such classics. She rebounded on sure footing with 2009’s gospel standards project “God Don’t Never Change.” This year’s “Beauty in the Curve” is available but isn’t on iTunes and can only be ordered through her site (ashleycleveland.com).
It’s definitely worth the effort to get — her greasy, garage-y interpretations of gospel songs like “City On a Hill,” “Walk in Jerusalem” and “Thief at the Door,” are balms to an ear burned out on too much of the usual Nashville-santitized contemporary Christian music. Black gospel knows this and has managed to sidestep it for the most part, although that brings its own issues — another essay. But Cleveland brings just enough left-of-center sensibilities to her gospel music to remain peerless. She often succeeds with simplicity — closing cut “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind on Jesus” is just her vocal with electric guitar and she succeeds in convincing you that’s just as it should be. Anything else would have been clutter.