CD Review of To Survive by Joan as Police Woman
Recommended if you like
Rufus Wainwright, Antony and the Johnsons, Fiona Apple
Label
Reveal/Cheap Lullaby
Joan as Police Woman:
To Survive

Reviewed by Michael Fortes

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I
t would be all too easy, and perhaps even inappropriate, to describe the smooth, supple, emotional performances of Joan as Police Woman as “arresting.” It’s one of those invitations that should be turned down on principle, if only to let the woman and her music speak without being attached to obvious humor when none is called for. So let this be a warning to any who would dare to commit such a verbal offense – you are being watched!

In all seriousness, though, the “Police Woman” in question – known off stage simply as Joan Wasser – has built upon and improved the sound she has adopted since striking out as a solo artist with Real Life two years ago. If anything, the languid yet alluring piano-based productions of To Survive have taken her a little bit farther away from her distant past as electric violinist and Blondie-inspired occasional-vocalist for the Boston band the Dambuilders.

The real precedents here are three-fold: as the romantic interest of the late Jeff Buckley, there was clearly a musical bond between the two that one can sometimes hear in Wasser’s phrasing, especially in the opening track on To Survive, “Honor Wishes.” But perhaps the stronger links are to Antony and the Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright, both of whom Joan has supported with her talents in the more recent past. She has absorbed the vibes of both in spades. Antony Hegarty dropped in to contribute some vocals to “I Defy” on Real Life, and Wainwright gets his turn on the closing track of To Survive, the two-part epic “To America.” The sensitive chamber pop approaches of both Hegarty and Wainwright are equally well-suited to Wasser’s voice and songwriting, as evidenced by the ten songs making up To Survive.

Also like the best efforts of Hegarty and Wainwright, the strength of To Survive lies in its consistency. While some songs like “To Be Lonely” rely mostly on Wasser’s voice and piano, and others have more fully fleshed out arrangements, Wasser’s calm, soothing voice and clean arrangements create a dependable soundscape that has changed little in two years, apart from maybe toning the energy down just a tad – there’s nothing here as immediate as Real Life’s energetically syncopated “Eternal Flame,” the slow burning new wave dirge “Start of My Heart” is unlike anything she has done so far, and the occasional distorted guitars that were the bedrock of her debut self-titled EP are, for all intents and purposes, gone.

In the absence of immediate pop hooks, Wasser’s arrangements themselves – the way in which the horns reside just below the vocals and piano when they are present (as in “Magpies”), never overpowering the proceedings, sharing space with winds and strings – create their own kind of allure independent of, and in place of, traditional pop song-craft. This allows the essence of Wasser’s songs to shine, and she sounds fully present throughout. Of course, this ultimately makes To Survive an art pop record, and a mighty fine one at that.

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