Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Joan As Police Woman - The Deep Field (2011) REVIEW

"Don't judge a book by its cover" is an idiom I try to apply as much as I can, concerning everything and everyone including music. Unfortunately, being just a man, momentarily bearded, mistakes are not out of reach. The first time and beyond until last week I heard the name Joan as Police Woman and judging on the name only I thought this was another angry lady playing electro-punk whatever more preoccupied by socio-politico-(feminist) activism on the dancefloor like M.I.A. and Peaches than just writing songs and composing music. Well, what can I say? I was wrong, once again. About a week ago, one friend asked me what I thought about the last Joan as Police Woman's album "The Deep Field" issued early this year. I couldn't let my ignorance being uncovered again, so I dug into Joan Wasser discography, at least until the first full length "Real Life" after having listened to her third above mentioned and last album. I was damn wrong, this I realized from the first song on: a very elegant eponymous torch song ballad built around a very simple piano melody, a waltz, illuminated by a sweet, warm, hornlike if discreetly beautiful voice.

Joan Wasser is first a violist. She began to get some fame in the underground circuit while playing with rock band The Dambuilders thanks to her technique but mostly her aggressive style on the instrument. We are somewhere in the midle of the 90s and from then on, sorry for that, but namedropping will prevail, in many ways Joan Wasser's life is a long namedropping diarrhea, the first one being not the least : in 1997, Joan Wasser's boyfriend was one Jeff Buckley. In 1999, she joined Antony And The Johnsons to record their successful "I Am A Bird Now". She also recorded or performed live with Lou Reed, Tanya Donelly, Sheryl Crow, Sparklehorse, Dave Gahan, Elton John, the Scissor Sisters, Guillemots, Joseph Arthur, Rufus Wainwright and Lloyd Cole. Her resume is impressive. Finally, in 2004 Joan Wasser, now Joan as Police Woman, released her first EP and in 2006 her debut album "Real Life" which was very well received by rock critics. From my side, being out of context while trying to be in it, I find it a very promising debut album with some brilliant, stylish and moving songs while some others seem unfinished and/or uninspired, the songs arrangement rather flat and unimaginative, except for her viola interventions. The song co-written and sung with Antony Hegarty is descent, the wrapping quite bleak and ordinary. Two years later, Joan as Police Woman released her second and mediocre album "To Survive" with some critical acclaims. The songs on this album sounds like leftovers of the first one; they're obviously not because they were inspired by Joan's mother's death in between time. The two prestigious guests didn't change much to this rather catastrophic low quality collection of torch songs. David Sylvian appears on the opening song "Honor Wishes", but I have to believe what's written because Sylvian's contribution is so discreet it could have been anyone, but anyone doesn't look good on a cd sleeve. On the contrary, Rufus Wainwright is very recognizable on the last song "To America" and it seems like his presence even rejuvenate everyone around because there's more life and colour and imagination in the last three minutes of the album than during the whole first 40 minutes. Rufus Wainwright's presence on the last track of this album looks to me like a blessing from one of Joan Wasser's main inspiration on these two first albums. Here and there, she could sound like a far less excentric woman version of Rufus Wainwright, mostly on slower songs, the ones that works best for me, while on more energetic ones, there's something of a less angry Martha Wainwright, we remain in the family.

Joan Wasser's inspirations are of course far wider and more varied than that, the list is long, but mostly among torch song, folk and jazz singers like Lena Horne and Peggy Lee through Joni Mitchell to Feist, with whom she shares that warm horn-like tone if mistier. Joan Wasser's strongest asset is definitely her voice and the way she's using it, she's simply said a marvellous singer, and she's her own. Another strong asset is that through her already long musical career and thanks to her many talented friends, she gained experience in writing songs, clothing them and interpreting them. Technically Joan Wasser is solid as a rock, both albums just lack that little thing that makes a plus called imagination. When you see her address book, and I spared the eventual reader the list of musicians playing on these albums, Joan Wasser seems like a dwarf among giants, but a rather tall dwarf (if less tall than the Tall Dwarfs, but nevermind).

So what about the last "The Deep Field"? First thing first, she's definitely back in great shape. Second thing, she clearly takes another musical path. Third thing, no prestigious guests, she's all on her own, but with the same producer as for the other album : Bryce Goggin, an eclectic producer who got his hands in albums by Pavement, Swans, Akron/Family, Antony and The Johnsons and even The Ramones. She has decided to modernize the new her. Joan Wasser has called "The Deep Field" her "most open, joyous" record to date (1). I would say her least subdued and melancholic album for sure, but we are still far from ebullient all smiling funky shit, it's a Joan as Police Woman aka Joan Wasser's LP. However, her voice sounds indeed lighter and she has never been so energetic and colourful. The instrumentation and production follows, off the piano (mostly), on the guitars, but the real novelty is the sensible presence of rhythm, percussion, a soulfull horn squadron, some exotic flavours and even electronic. This album is far more textured and varied than the previous albums. Unfortunately, that doesn't make "The Deep Field" a particularly compelling album, the songs remains rather average, with some ideas here and there, some hooks, but too seldom to mention, nothing really stands out. Too often, Joan Wasser's strongest asset, her voice, is drowned into the production, which is also another drawback of this album, it's overproduced all along, it's like an average woman wearing too much make up, at the end you don't know who she is. The song "The Action Man" is an example, Joan Wasser's voice is so compressed it doesn't shine much anymore, but added to the multi-layered arrangement, horns, disco-soul backing vocals, mellow trip-hoppy rhythms, synths, electric guitars, etc. that otherwise charming voice seems muffled through the general crowdy arrangement. Besides, the song is rather lame and boring, devoid of element of surprise. It's strange actually, everything on this album has been done with great taste, if old-fashioned, but it doesn't work, it remains flat and the songs are rather indistinguishable from one another, which is paradoxical knowing each song is different in style. Finally, these songs are far too long, there's not enough substance to them, the instrumental parts are mostly some continuation of the song's accompaniments, it would have been more efficient if the songs ended around the three minutes mark. The very moody "Flash", almost eight minutes long, fails to sustain interest all along, despite the rich soundscape and the dark near chamanic rhythm pattern, which makes me wanna listen to The White Birch's "Cabaret" (2). There are at least two songs that I could save from this album, the Paul Simon's "Graceland"-era-like "Human Condition" with its odd but pleasant Barry Whitey backup vocals and the single melodic guitar driven "Forever And A Year" which floats through whispered and haunting background vocals, synths, melancholic B3 Hammond organ and delicate bass drumming. Joan as Police Woman's best tempo is definitely of the slower mode.

This album is not bad, far from it, Joan Wasser seems mostly swallowed by her own huge ambition, it is also very self-indulgent and surely overproduced. It's an album that tries too hard to be a great one to end up being just average. It surely makes me even more impatient for a new Feist album to see the light of day.

5 out of 10

(1) http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/nw5c
(2) http://www.deezer.com/en/index.php#music/the-white-birch/people-now-human-beings-456129

  • Real Life (2006) -  5.5
  • To Survive (2008) - 4

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