On 2013’s Stranger, Michael J. Joseph aims to create a musical kaleidoscope, jumping between genres and sounds within the context of a consistent, cohesive album. Some of the genres that Michael dabbles in include jazz, R&B, blues, rock, country, and pop. Much to his credit, Michael does manage to capture the spirit of the various styles with consistently strong song-writing.
“Banging Flash” opens Stranger with a more than fitting bang. As slightly ominous keyboards set the atmosphere, the quick blues/rock guitar comes in to form a strong riff and equally strong melody. The drums have a distinctly punchy sound that don’t thunder too loudly but manage to make their presence known with gusto. The guitars hold the song together and provide the perfect backdrop to Michael's bluesy drawl.
The album’s closer, “Rope,” is a sparsely arranged number that concentrates on voice, soft percussion, and sustained guitar chords. This is a wonderful setting for Michael's deadpan delivery.
The remaining musical atmospheres are just as soundly constructed. “Heads You Win, Tails I Lose,” is a well-conceived throw back to the kind of vocal pop that singers like Neil Sedaka and Wayne Newton would’ve performed. The arrangement is expectedly light, featuring a soft guitar riff, chiming keyboards, and light, cymbal intensive percussion. Michael’s voice works exceptionally well here; ranging from fragile and vulnerable to powerful and passionate; it maintains the song’s musical feel without pulling the listener out of it.
Michael doesn't belt out songs like Robert Plant or Bono; he is a baritone that manages to transcend the pitfalls of the middle register by being consistently creative with nuances, inflections and phrasing. He has a cool sounding voice with a distinct and sweet tone which when called for can go up a few gears into an upper register which is clean (with a little bit of grit!) The song "How Sweet The Words" is a great example of Michael's vocal versatility.
The best way that Michael keeps the listener engaged is by bringing in unique instrumentation to certain songs. “So Often Divine,” makes itself much stronger thanks to the saxophone solo. If you were to remove this from the track, you’d still have a driving bassline and funky drum and keyboard sound, but the sax piggybacks off of that funk vibe and launches the song into a higher level of quality. Similarly, “These Eyes of Mine” is taken to another level by the steel guitar, and “Clover” wouldn’t capture the R&B elements that it does without the drum loop and wah-wah guitar lines.
Stranger is also strong lyrically. Michael addresses universal themes and diverse subject matter. "Stars at Dawn" is a moving song about struggling to come to terms with loved ones Alzheimer's; "A Man Called Hoodoo" is a rockabilly poem about a Wild West outlaw; and in "Death is Deliverance," the lyric discusses the narrator’s desire to embrace death, feeling it is the only thing that can free him from life’s pain.
Stranger is the type of album that puts itself on display without holding anything back. Michael has written a series of songs that are relatively straightforward in the sense that they try to present different genres to the listener, so the traits of those genres are brought to the forefront of the songs representing them. Michael J. Joseph does succeed in genre bending and in so doing has produced a fine body of work.