Joan as Police Woman: “To Survive”

In a way, the title of Joan Wasser’s second Joan as Police Woman album sets it up quite nicely as a sequel to her debut. Last year’s Real Life bore a title that could be taken as either triumphant or wearily resigned, as either a celebration of daily living or as an expression of disillusionment. Neither Wasser’s life nor her music seem to have grown any less complicated since then, so of course the follow-up album, To Survive, could also be taken in a couple of different ways– as a declaration of purpose to overcome the obstacles of daily living, or as a weak desire to simply get by. And like the title, the music on her second album seems to pick up exactly where the first left off– it may be a more sophisticated and luxurious album, and it’s probably a slightly sharper and stronger one as well, but Joan is still doing what she does best: Namely, capturing all the stormy intensity and emotional drama of everyday life– “real life”– and rendering them into music that’s frightfully intimate and thuderously beautiful.

All that to say, it isn’t too surprising to learn that Wasser was involved with Jeff Buckley at the time of his death; in a way, she’s carrying his torch with greater integrity than anyone else making music today, even though she’s walking a path that’s entirely her own. Buckley had a flair for the dramatic and the theatrical, and he borrowed the best elements of pop, soul, classic rock, and even some jazzy folk for his stomping, tempestuous studio album, Grace. Wasser makes albums that are no less compelling and no less dramatic than that seminal work, and she also dips into just as man musical idioms, but, crucially, she makes music that is far more subtle and sophisticated even while it’s every bit as direct and emotionally charged. That’s because when it comes to synthesizing different sounds and styles, she’s nearly unmatched in the seamlessness and elegance of her art. And that’s ultimately what makes her music– and To Survive in particular– so compelling: It’s quietly innovative and subtly edgy, but she makes it sound so simple anr organic that its brilliance isn’t striking and disarming so much as it’s coy and seductive.

Some reviewers have described Wasser’s aesthetic with the shorthand, “beauty as the new punk.” And it’s not hard to hear why; the ten songs on the new record are mesmerizingly beautiful in a way that’s so straightforward and unadorned, it almost seems nostalgic. And indeed, though she borrows from pop, rock, soul, jazz, and folk music, Wasser’s albums are singer-songwriter affairs first and foremost, using whatever tropes and idioms she feels are needed but never forcing anything, never making a show of her eclecticism, always putting song first and paying no attention to genre boundaries. Thus, this is one of those rare and remarkable albums that doesn’t initially seem like anything particularly revolutionary until you try to describe or define it, and the vibrantly creative music ever so gracefully eludes classification. In its own way, it’s as edgy and as defiant as almost any album released in 2008, but it flows so naturally that it’s rarely very obvious just how much is going on here.

Wasser seems equally interested in sound and song, and indeed, To Survive sounds like the creation of a woman with a sensualist’s ear and a romantic’s heart, a slinky and seductive, twilit album that’s as graceful and poetic in its sound as it is in its meaning. And how fitting– like the best confessional singer-songwriters (Joni Mitchell comes to mind), Wasser makes interior monologues and small, everyday emotions sound compelling and rich, grandly dramatic but intimately affecting. And certainly, her sense of craft instills each song with sharp emotional hooks; simply witness the economy of language and her knack for poetic sound in “Holiday,” one of numerous complicated relationship songs that begins with the line “little did I know you were my holiday,” and doesn’t go anywhere even close to where you might think it would. The sensuality at the core of “Start of My Heart” nearly qualifies as erotic, and the album-closing duet with Rufus Wainwright, “To America,” is a fittingly theatrical conclusion to this emotional pilgrimage. But the heart of the album is a pair of songs, “To Be Loved” and “To Be Lonely,” that initially seem like two sides of the same coin, but eventually reveal themselves to be very closely intertwined in some subtle and astonishing ways– a neat trick that stands as the album’s best example (though there are many) of Wasser’s considerable gifts as a composer and as a poet.

Joan herself sticks mostly to piano, and the rest of the Police Woman crew is simply a bassist and a drummer; there are also some shadings of guitar and violin from Wasser, as well as some electronic effects, but don’t expect there to be many fireworks from the actual production, which is subtle and restrained, and largely rather melancholy. But just because the album is an elegant slow-burner doesn’t mean it isn’t engaging; there are plenty of fireworks here, but they reside mostly in the evocative songwriting and the soulful performance from Wasser. In other words, this is a rich and deep album in the truest sense– it just gets better and better the more it is experienced, the more time it is given to open up its many wonders, and, as such, it’s both one of the most intoxicating and one of the most rewarding recordings of the year.

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  1. The Hurst Fifteen: Favorite Recordings of 2008 « The Hurst Review - December 7, 2008

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