To Africa and back
Joan Wassar, aka Joan as Police Woman, is best known for her quirky vocal style and her past collaborations with experimental musicians such as Antony (Anohni), Rufus Wainwright and Lou Reed. Multi-instrumentalist Benjamin Lazar Davis has worked in the more alternative-rock field with acts such as Okkervil River and Bridget Kearney. The two connected over Central African Republic Pygmy musical patterns after taking separate trips to Africa: Joan went to Ethiopia as part of Damon Albarn’s Africa Express, Lazar traveled to West Africa to study traditional music. That said, there does not seem to be anything distinctly African on their new record. Sure, there are rhythms, repetitions, and configurations that may evoke sounds of Africa, such as the percussion on “Motorway”, but these elements have become a part of contemporary rock since the early 21st century (think Vampire Weekend and such). Recent trends have shown there is much more in common with the two different kinds of music than previously presumed.
Let It Be You contains 10 bouncy, jagged tracks that move in eccentric and peculiar ways. Joan’s idiosyncratic voice can go from a Kate Bush-like high on cuts such as “Broke Me in Two” to Roberta Flack-like lite soul on “Station” without ever settling on one style. Although the crazed beats may contribute to the album’s unitary sensibility, Joan’s vocals take the songs to different sonic spaces. Davis also sings but uses his voice to engage more conversationally with the listener. For example, he turns “Overloaded” into a conventional pop song despite the odd instrumental and looping effects. He croons about screaming and shouting about his feelings of exploding love but never lets his voice get out of control.
Sometimes the musical ambitions seem forced and the cuts turn from strange to ho-hum in its pursuit of the perfect beat. “Satellite” and “Violent Dove” are two songs that seem to meander rather than find a groove and drone on as a result. Some other songs also seem in search of an ending and go on too long. The musicians are engaged in experimentation that leads nowhere, and while the spirit should be applauded for their efforts, the results don’t bear repeated listening.
However, the good tracks here far outnumber the mediocre ones, and the unpredictable nature of the music itself make the album well worth hearing. In particular, “Broke Me in Two” and “Easy Money” are infectious pieces that open the album and invite one to partake in a smorgasbord of odd tempos and idiosyncratic thuds and crunches while the vocals splash in and out of the music. The words themselves seem superfluous here and elsewhere on the record. They can be fun and even Dada-esque. Consider “Magic Lamp” that begins “Daisy / you stare into the fog in Iceland / and if you want to dance / tell me with your eyes.” Joan sweetly sings the lyrics, but like Daisy, the listener seems lost in the fog and would rather dance to the music than pay attention to the words. The cut ends in a round of cymbal banging and vocal chirping as Joan celebrates her magic lamp more than the person she’s with as chaos reigns. That’s actually kind of cool. The world is too confused to make sense of, but at least one can move to its rhythms.
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