Joan Wasser has, for a long time, been in the periphery of my vision: I remember catching The Dambuilders by chance at CBGB’s on a bill with Teenage Fanclub and Madder Rose; a presence with violin in both The Johnsons and in Rufus Wainwright’s band; a member of Dave Shouse’s excellent post-Grifters project, Those Bastard Souls.
Weird, then, that her debut album as Joan As Police Woman never made much of an impact on me, while quietly burning itself on the consciousness of a few of my colleagues. After a couple of weeks with the follow-up, “To Survive”, I’m beginning to think I can’t have given it a proper chance. Last time out, I was much more taken with Martha Wainwright’s debut, which must have been around at more or less the same time.
This time, the new Martha record is nice – some very ornate Cocteaus-ish filigree and shadow there, as well as a Donald Fagen guest spot I haven’t yet identified– but a bit underwhelming. “To Survive”, on the other hand, is an enormously involving and impressive record; a slow and emotional set that builds and builds until it struts out with the Broadway horns and inevitable Rufus Wainwright cameo of “America”.
It’s a fabulous resolution, but one that only makes complete sense in the context of “To Survive” as a whole. The sleeve portrays Wasser in the style of one of those enigmatic Pre-Raphaelite damsels: bare shoulders; flowing tresses; unreadably profound expression as she stares away from the lens. Tremendously Lizzie Siddal.
And when “Honor Wishes” begins, it fits more or less with that aesthetic, although I guess a good deal more austere than we might imagine a musical equivalent of Rossetti might be (the Cocteaus again, maybe?). Laura Nyro springs to mind, though the way Wasser rides a plangent, striding piano, anxiously tracked by a brushes-wielding drummer, is reminiscent of Nina Simone, too.
“Holiday” is airier and more approachable; fittingly, since I’ve been playing the tenth anniversary reissue, it has the ambience of the Beth Hirsch leads on Air’s “Moon Safari”. Feist too, maybe even more so on “To Be Loved”, “Hard White Wall”, “Furious” and “Magpies”.
These are lovely, clever and approachable songs, but it’s the solemn piano ballads that stick in the mind when “To Survive” is over: reflective marvels, gracefully augmented by strings, like “To Be Lonely” and the stunning title track, with a 19th Century gravitas and a soulful precision which supersedes that of her sometime employer, Antony Hegarty. This is breathtakingly good music; remind me to dig out “Real Life” and revisit it over the next few days, if I haven’t mentioned it here.