Joan Wasser was indie royalty long before she formed Joan As Police Woman. One time girlfriend of the late Jeff Buckley, her talents as a violin and viola player had garnered her a spot in Antony And The Johnsons, and backing and support slots with Rufus Wainwright, Lou Reed, Tanya Donelly, and Sparklehorse.
Her 2006 debut Real Life confirmed that she was more than just a second fiddle, and its follow up, To Survive, sees a shift from jazzy playfulness to more serious classic songwriting, with moving effect.
The opening piano thump of Honor My Wishes sets up a juddering dark rhythm for a funereal dirge. And from the outset the album is darker than the debut. Holiday passes by like Norah Jones on barbiturates. Similarly, To Be Loved is lifted above indolent earcandy by Wasser’s voice, which slides up scales and down registers, nimbly and with deceptive ease.
To Be Lonely is a gorgeous ballad, sparse piano and delicate strings lend the track a 1950s lounge feel, but it’s Wasser’s voice that brings the song to life. Previously so assured and controlled it is now the sound of a fragile heart breaking. You’re a stronger person than I if you are not welling up a little as she sings the closing line “This is the one I would die for, to be lonely, to be lonely with”.
Any comparisons to the lighter easy-jazz of Norah Jones and the ilk are brushed aside by the surprising song writing. Never taking the path of least resistance, Wasser buries vocals in a mix of strings keys and percussion, making the listener work on tracks such as Hard White Wall and Furious, the approach recalls Mary Margaret O’Hara.
The title track is another heartbreaking ballad, the instrumentation could come from a 1950s weepy, the lyrics “I never felt this way, or maybe I do every day; what it is to be alive”, seem particularly poignant given the death of Wasser’s mother since the recording of her debut.
Comparisons to Feist and St Vincent may be obvious, but they are not unwarranted. Wasser too is a clever songwriter and skilled musician. Whereas Leslie Feist has progressed from the folk-jazz debut to a gifted pop songsmith and Annie Clark has yet to prove her mettle with a second record, Joan Wasser has shown herself to be an assured torch singer and original artist. To Survive is a challenge at times, but ultimately rewarding.