Joan As Policewoman: The Classic

[11 March 2014]

By Ryan Lathan

While not quite the classic its title might insinuate, the fifth solo album from Brooklyn’s Joan Wasser, aka Joan As Policewoman, sees the critically-acclaimed, indie singer-songwriter renouncing the overly-cerebral despondency she’s built her career upon. This time around, she’s fighting tooth and nail to be happy and damned if she won’t succeed. The retro-tinged, adult-contemporary vibe of 2011‘s The Deep Field hinted at the direction she might take next, but The Classic regrettably succumbs to the hackneyed trend of resurrecting obsolete musical genres to give an artist a bit of a facelift.

The problem with her latest effort isn’t that it’s steeped in ‘70s soul nostalgia, it’s that by paying homage to everyone from Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye, she isn’t bringing anything new to the table. It’s as if she’s an actress playing dress up, one who can’t quite figure out how to fully embody her character. Wasser’s distinctive voice is often a beautiful thing, but she frankly doesn’t have the vocal chops to pull off the soul diva guise. When she’s on the money though, The Classic proves that she can conjure up an addictive chorus as insanely catchy as any of her contemporaries.

This isn’t Joan Wasser’s party album, per se. She may be casting off her “devils to make room for monumental love”, but there are still plenty of little demons lingering around within the lyrics of The Classic. That said, latest infectious single “Holy City” and the giddily joyful eighth track “Shame” are the closest thing she’s released to dance floor filler in her entire career. The latter, with its funky wah-wah guitar effect and blazing horn section might seem a bit hokey to some and a bit of a pastiche to others, but there’s little denying its desired head-bobbing effect. Comparing her plight to Christ’s was a bit eye-rolling, but inane lyricism aside, I dare say you might be playing this song on repeat, despite yourself.

Lead single and title track, “The Classic” is so startlingly different from anything else on the album, that it seemed a curious choice to spearhead the album campaign. A cappella doo-wop songs aren’t exactly all the rage these days, but it’s memorable, if simply because there hasn’t been anything like this released in ages. Opening track “Witness” with its dramatically plucked strings, blaring horns and snarling organ, perfectly captures the internally-waged warfare between self-deprecation and positive affirmation. Come to think of it, the entire record is really a meditation on personal forgiveness and empowerment.

The Classic has some lovely lyrical mantras scattered throughout. “Good Together” recognizes the unhealthiness of obsessively reminiscing about the past, as Wasser sings “don’t want to be nostalgic for something that never was”. The sexy, but meandering “Get Direct”, with it’s gorgeous intermittent string section, sees Joan longing for intimacy, but acknowledging that “I know nobody owns nobody”. The smoldering slow jam would have been the album’s clear highlight, if it didn’t overstay its welcome by two or three needless minutes.

The less that can be said about the plodding “What Would You Do” and aimless “New Years Day”, the better. The former fades out around the four-minute mark as Wasser randomly tacks on a quiet postlude, one that thankfully harkens back to the quiet beauty of “Real Life” from her debut album. If only the rest of the song had been this poignant. The album concludes with the lovely reggae-tinged “Ask Me”, a stylistic departure as odd as the ‘60s doo-wop of the title track.

The Classic seems like a case of too little, too late. Joan Wasser is releasing an album of retro-soul songs at a time when they’ve become a bit passé. Mainstream audiences have seemingly moved on from the Amy Winehouse’s of the world. The dark charm that simmered beneath the core of her first two records and appeared occasionally on her not so cleverly titled cover album “Cover”, disappeared when The Deep Field arrived. Some of her greatest achievements as a songwriter have been inspired by death, from her drowned lover Jeff Buckley to the loss of her own mother. The fact remains, Joan is so much arresting an artist when she’s sad. That said, this newfound inner peace and outer joy she’s discovered might seem a bit forced, but one can’t blame her for trying to crawl out of the melancholic hole she was buried within.

The moody, torch singer persona she clung so tightly to on her debut Real Life and its followup To Survive, seems to have been filed away and gradually discarded as she’s evolved. One has to ask though, has Wasser really evolved or is she losing the essence of her songwriting soul by trying to deliver music that panders to a broader audience, one that might not even exist anymore?  Whether or not The Classic finds that audience, it’s comforting to know that an artist like Joan As Policewoman is still out there to counterbalance the auto-tuned pop tartlets of the music business.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/179811-joan-as-policewoman-the-classic/