Joan as Police Woman Real Life / B-Sides

[Cheap Lullaby; 2007]

Styles: 21st century blue-eyed soul
Others: Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple

I expected a lot from Joan Wasser, who’s been around forever and has worked with everyone from Mary Timony to Antony and the Johnsons, Rufus Wainwright to the late Jeff Buckley (with whom she was also involved romantically). If all of these names have one thing in common, it’s a certain degree of iconoclasm. Even when they’re not in top form, each is unapologetically original, and as far as I can tell, that’s why each is so beloved.

Unfortunately, when left to her own devices, Wasser doesn’t display quite as much personality. None of the ten songs on her band Joan as Police Woman’s Real Life are bad, per se, but the collection of soul, jazz, and R&B numbers feels watered-down and anonymous. Wasser has a gorgeous, weathered alto voice, but only on the album’s two best songs -- “Eternal Flame,” by far the best of several duets with Joseph Arthur, and “I Defy,” co-written with Antony (who also contributes some vocals) -- does it fulfill its versatile and expressive potential. The rest of Real Life lacks energy, ultimately feeling banal and commercial. The band goes through all of the motions, incorporating eminently competent piano, brass, and strings, but when you call yourself “American soul,” you’d best be sure that there is some “soul” — that is, personality, spunk, joie de vivre, verve — palpable in your work.

Judging from the bonus disc, titled simply B-Sides, included in the Cheap Lullaby release, Joan as Police Woman is not actually bereft of these attributes. Perhaps the six songs in this collection didn’t make it to Real Life because they were oddballs that would disturb the album’s low-key mood, but most of them are infinitely more interesting than the tracks that made the cut. “Happiness is a Violator” is a soulful (for real this time!) “fuck you” dedicated to Condoleezza Rice, and Wasser whips out some seriously convincing punk rock on “Endless Supply of Poison.” In a snarly and sensual minimalist cover of David Bowie’s “Sweet Thing,” the band succeeds in its ballsy effort to interpret one of the most difficult artists to cover. Even “We Don’t Own It,” which is dedicated to Elliott Smith and appears in a not particularly notable full-band version on Real Life, is more effective in Wasser’s pared-down solo version that ends the B-Sides disc.

There is hope, then, for Joan as Police Woman, as long as the band stops shying away from the eclectic fare of which it is evidently capable. While Real Life may be marketable, that’s about all it is. Wasser and the boys have the potential for being truly original and compelling, depending on where their priorities lie.

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