Joan Wasser has the pedigree. The classical training, the romance with Jeff Buckley, the work with everyone from Lou Reed to Rufus Wainwright to Antony and the Johnsons. It could be these disparate attachments that make it seem so difficult for critics to classify her. Is she a bluesy chanteuse with attitude, ala PJ Harvey? A singer-songwriter extraordinaire, ready to break through to Adult Contemporary radio at any moment, ala Feist? An underground rocker with a subtle bent toward experimentation and noisy edges, ala Mary Timony? All, or none, of the above?
Whichever bulbs flash in your brain as you listen to Wasser’s music and try to spot her influences, she proves herself a captivating voice and pleasantly eclectic composer. As for that voice, it’s a thing of beauty—velvety and textured, controlled and emotional, sultry and poised to devastate. She gravitates toward the maximal when composing her songs, but they rarely seem overstuffed, and her band manages to blend the often disparate instrumentation into a surprisingly rich sonic palate. In other words, this new album, The Deep Field, the third under her Joan As Police Woman moniker, is a headphones record. Check the alternately growling and purring “Flash” for a case study.
If The Deep Field is Joan As Police Woman’s most texturally varied album, it may also be its best. Where Real Life (2007) announced the band’s arrival as a promising talent and To Survive (2008) offered less a coronation than that hallowed musical touchstone, the divisive sophomore album, The Deep Field sees Wasser moving forward confidently and, at times, even aggressively. To Survive was, if nothing else, a cohesively bleak listen. The Deep Field is also a dark album, but it seethes with energy in a different way. Dense, with barely a track under the five-minute mark, it begs attention and focus on the part of its audience. That’s not to say it’s an overly intellectualized album—not at all. The hooks are here in earnest, and the rhythms on the most slow-burning tracks (the bobbing “Human Condition,” for one) keep most afloat with ease.
“Kiss the Specifics” treads too closely to Casey Kasem territory with its gospel backing vocals and maniacally gentle instrumentation. And here’s the rub, the weakest element of The Deep Field: the track also suffers from sequencing, sandwiched between the similarly-paced bar ballads “Human Condition” and “Chemmie” (both of which, for what it’s worth, are notably stronger material than that song). In fact, the entirety of the album’s bottom half would benefit from individual listens, each track isolated on its own and freed from a surprising lack of momentum when taken as a whole. The closer, “I Was Everyone”, eventually builds to a climax that recalls the energy of The Deep Field’s A-side. Still, it’s hard not to feel like the album comes down too quickly after the promise of its opening numbers.
And about those opening numbers—they’re knockouts. “Nervous” gets things started with the guitars turned up and the kick drum pounding, Wasser’s vocals moving from falsetto whisper to admonishing vibrato with ease. “The Magic” uses its bass line as a weapon, turning Wasser’s lyrics of half-hearted self-aggrandizement into a manifesto. Wasser’s neo-soul tendencies come out in full force on “The Action Man”, and swell of the song’s final minutes are something to behold. These tracks, and The Deep Field as a collection, bring yet another name to mind in the litany of Wasser’s references: Joanna Newsom on Have One On Me (2010). That album, too, proves difficult to digest in one sitting. However, when taken piecemeal, its blues-and-Americana DNA open up to often dazzling results. Perhaps Newsom’s advice works for The Deep Field, as well. Have one on Wasser, take a breather, and dive back in when you see fit.