Joan Wasser, Joan as Police Woman‘s Christian name, if you’ll allow, has friends in high places. Wasser has collaborated with or has had effusive praise from some of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of the last 30 to 40 years: Lou Reed, Elton John, Rufus Wainwright and Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, with whom she played on the breakthrough “I Am a Bird Now”.
Surrounded by all this teeming talent for several years, Wasser couldn’t help but take influence, and notes, from them. Certainly on The Deep Field, her latest, these men (particularly Reed) seem to deeply inform the proceedings. But, at the risk of beating a long-dead horse of Joan as Police Woman record reviews, Wasser’s ex-boyfriend, Jeff Buckley, may most deeply inform, if not haunt, her music. (The two were a couple when Buckley infamously drowned in 1997.) If not in sound then quite possibly in spirit– as Wasser’s settled grief or perhaps as her wistful motivation.
In the dark boogie-woogie soul of her songs is the same maudlin murk that exists in Hegarty but also female (and equally non-heteronormative) singer-songwriter precursors Nina Simone, Patti Smith, Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco, who Wasser very much channels on The Deep Field’s ear-worm, first single, “Magic”. Contemporaries such as Regina Spektor and Feist are also accurate RIYLs. But few contemporaries have the snide-talking, Northeastern, Cash Belt swagger Wasser does. She’s confident in her sound, despite being maybe five years into her solo career. The finale of The Deep Field, “I Was Everyone”, shows it off in spades, capturing the lightning of a perfect soul groove in a bottle of swirling, churning, life-giving, invigorating water.
Perhaps I’m ideaIizing. I happen to have a thing for female singer-songwriters. It’s not simply that I’m attracted to them or their talent, per se (though indeed I am). It’s really more of the ensorcelling power of the female singing voice, its high, Siren-like registers, its low, resonate tones and its delicate (and, fuck it, sexy) whispers. So it’s hard to deny that Wasser’s vocals seem key to her songs’ appeal: she mumbles and mutters in a way that recalls Iggy Pop or Reed fighting their way delicately through ramshackle torch songs, with their shared vocal cues, hinting that something slightly (or perhaps seriously) dangerous might happen. Like some of rock ‘n’ roll’s most revered performers, Wasser likes to evoke a little bit of danger and grit.
No worries, though. If shit goes down, Joan as Police Woman has got this shit. She’s the man.