Joan as Police Woman
K: obvious stuff out of the way first. Joan Wasser is a former member of Black Beetle and The Dambuilders and has played violin for Rufus Wainwright and Antony (of “and the Johnsons” fame). And, for better or worse, her debut solo album Real Life renders all of that irrelevant within the space of its first two songs. That’s because, with only the softest of piano progressions as backing, Wasser's voice is immediately thrust to the forefront of “Real Life” (where it stays for most of the album) and sells the song's long-distance love story completely. Throaty and slightly faltering, she brings an intimacy and power to every line as the ephemeral details of her letter, down to the numbers on the Post Office's scale, take on a significance beyond themselves. Even as she breaks the fourth wall to sing "I've never included a name in a song, but I'm changing my ways for you," as plucked strings join the piano melody, it's done so delicately that it doesn't shatter the atmosphere. Indeed, her sensual whisper of "Jonathon" that follows, with painstaking care over each syllable, is the most breathtaking, heart-in-mouth, moment of the whole song and album.
"Eternal Flame," a completely different beast—the single, no less—comes next and it might be even better. Waves of feedback swell and crash in the background as multiple layers of Wasser's vocals almost trip over each other in fits and bursts of emotion; a repeated spoken "yes, yes" above it all sounds thrilled and excited and scared, all at once. And though at first "Eternal Flame" appears a sumptuous but formless mess, it eventually coalesces to a unified chorus of enormous enough proportions to match the promise of eternity that is being faced up to and denied within.
The rest of Real Life tends to fall somewhere between the two opening giants in tone and, bar the spectral closer "We Don't Own It" (dedicated to "Elliot Smith") has nothing else nearly as singularly stunning. But it's still a fine showcase—the brief, distorted snatches of viola between tracks stringing the album together deftly. The violin that Wasser usually plays is used surprisingly sparingly on the “real” songs but also excellently, especially on the jazzy, argumentative "Christobel." Elsewhere clarinet and trumpet add texture to basic piano/guitar songs and lyrics are always effective in their straightforward emotion. The simple things almost always work for Joan As Police Woman, and most of the other things too—even when Antony somewhat inevitably shows up on "I Defy," his usual wounded bleating (again, in multiple layers!) does little damage. OK: less obvious stuff last. Wasser’s easy-going, gorgeous songs announce her as a talent in impressive style.
Reviewed by: Iain Forrester
Reviewed on: 2006-09-13