Review Summary: This is terrific.
Joan as Police Woman (aka: Joan Wasser) is slowly rising from obscurity. Very slowly. But she's coming. She started as a backing singer and/or violinist for acclaimed indie bands and singers, and in 2006 she released her stunning debut Real Life
. She burst on the scene, and people were surprised at how she seemingly came out of nowhere with this disc. Little did they know, that deep inside the disc, laid a set of ten wonderful tracks exhibiting a new, fresh, and incredible talent. Joan as Police Woman became a critical darling, and with her 2008 sophomore release, To Survive
, she will most likely remain as so.
doesn't differ too immensely from her debut. The songwriting it still cryptic yet very articulate, and the musicality is still breezy and laid back. "Honor Wishes" kicks off the show, with a very simple yet effective piano line, and slow, unfurling vocals from Wasser. This resembles the opening title track from the debut, but doesn't quite outdo it, despite it's fantastic melody. The song is calm until midway when a beautiful subtle harmony starts to overpower, eventually giving way back to the melody to end the song. This is classic Joan as Police Woman: breezy and calm, but profoundly moving. Plus, she always seems to know just which way to start a record.
In the tracklist, you'll notice many "to"'s in the titles. The two best are coupled right next to each other, "To Be Loved" and "To Be Lonely." The former is one of the more upbeat tracks, featuring some solid lyricism ("When you found me I could not be loved / But I found me and I'm happy to be loved.") This track also goes along more with her self-proclaimed "punk rock R&B" sound more than anything she's done, with the swaying beat and passionate vocals. "To Be Loved" is a polar opposite, that contains the bittersweet utterance "This is the one / I will try / To be lonely with," alongside a beautiful piano line. Wasser really knows how to construct a slow burning number, and with a climax that will send shivers down your spine, this is a magnificent one.
However, and unfortunately, the worst tracks sandwich those two highights. "Holiday" and "Magpies" both have awesome instrumentation, and some great vocal performances. However, they fail to provide much of a memorable melody. During "Magpies" I actually once forgot it was the same song, simply because I couldn't remember. When you decipher these songs, you realize there are some repeated melodies, it's just, somehow, you hardly notice. This happened a lot on her debut too, specifically on songs like "Feed the Light."
Nothing prepares you, though, for the show stopping standout that is "Start of My Heart." Again, a polar opposite to the melody-less "Magpies." (She likes to place these next to each other, doesn't she?) This song contains the single best melody of the record, along with what I think is Wasser's best performance to date. "It was with you / Rivington, deep September /
We took the long way / And your hand / Led me home, like Orion / You woke my heart / With your northern lights / With your song" goes the bridge, and it's great. The best thing about this song, however, is the backing chorus (which sounds more like a couple layers of her own vocals) that occasionally repeats a line she just sang, forming like an echo, which gives the song that magical kick.
Anywhere else, the record seems to be more of an 'alright' affair. "Hard White Wall" is a good return after "Start of My Heart" with an empowered ending. "Furious" contains some great political bites, as she asks us all: "Are you not furious?" But the production is just so damn perfect (as it is on every other song she's done, including the ones on her debut), that her fury sounds subdued. I would have loved a scream or two. The title track is another beautiful, slow piano driven song, but its verses are too long and there's not much keeping you listening except the piano, and the wondrous climax towards the end, which leads nicely into "To America," the closer. Rufus Wainwright adds some of his vocal talents on this two-part track, the first half being a bit boring, and the second half, while mystifyingly written -- ("To America / America! / Alone alarm alive / I am the hunter and I am the hunted / Alone alarm alive / Two marigolds / We're marigolds / Alone alarm alive") -- the horn-and-drum bombast of the outro makes it a majestic adieu.
So while her formula hasn't changed significantly -- it's all still filled with softened drumming, subdued but complex guitar, touching piano, brilliant vocals, and pitch-perfect production, yadda yadda yadda -- To Survive
is still a great album. A few missteps here and there, but it was the same way on her debut. The good songs are always good enough to trump the bad, but the bad are still annoyingly noticeable. I am still waiting for a record from her that masters melodies on every song with ease. But for now, this is terrific.
Individual Track Ratings:
1. Honor Wishes - 4 / 5
2. Holiday - 3.5 / 5
3. To Be Loved - 4.5 / 5 *
4. To Be Lonely - 4.5 / 5 *
5. Magpies - 3 / 5
6. Start of My Heart - 4.5 / 5 *
7. Hard White Wall - 4 / 5
8. Furious - 4 / 5
9. To Survive - 4 / 5
10. To America - 4 / 5