What the hell kind of a name is Joan As Policewoman anyway? Why is Joan so aloof and stern, pouting on the cover? Why is the sleeve so badly designed, so that the CD and the inserts don’t fit inside properly, and the damn thing rips when you just want to listen to it? Because one wants to listen to it often.
I know next to nothing about Joan As Policewoman. We caught the end of her set when she supported Guillemots in Bristol in about 2006 and didn’t think much. Some time later Em bought the album; she doesn’t remember what made her pick it up, and says it took a long time to click. But when it did…
Joan As Policewoman, like PJ Harvey or St. Vincent, is a band name; in this case, for a group lead by Joan Wasser, who spent the 90s and early 00s as a violinist for hire with the likes of Anthony & The Johnsons, Tanya Donnelly, Rufus Wainwright, and Jeff Buckley, who she was romantically linked with when he died. Her own material, starting with an eponymous mini-album and then this full-length (but pleasingly concise) debut album, is both rootsy and delicate, minimal and incredibly sophisticated, and possessed of an incredible emotional eloquence. Wasser makes use of a tightly understated rhythm section, which she decorates with her voice, guitar, piano, violin, viola, keyboards and brass, most of which she plays herself.
“I Defy”, a duet with Anthony Hegarty, rolls on a delicious piano hook, part Carole King and part Dr Dre, and a metronomic rhythm. The contrast between Wasser’s earthy tone and Anthony’s decadent tremulousness, borne atop a simple, fore-fronted bassline, is exquisite. Throughout the record, Wasser’s songwriting is concise and economical, the melodies so well wrought and simple that they feel like they’ve always existed.
The arrangements match; “Christobel” is propelled on chugging guitars, somehow direct and free, spontaneous and scripted at the same time. “Eternal Flame” is lusty and close to being raucous. The whole record feels organic and, dare I say it… soulful. Funky and sinewy, never ostentatious, perfectly complementing her charismatic voice, it exists somewhere between jazz ballads, the ghost of punk, rock ‘n’ roll dissolved to nothingness, occasional touches of saxophone of slithers of feedback adding grit and energy to something which could have felt one dimensional in hands less wise.
Lyrically, Joan examines love from all sides, dealing with regret, tenderness, lust, comfort and yearning. The opening, titular song ties together mundane details into a tapestry of affection. “I’m out of my mind and I think that you like it / so take the chance / be reckless with me” she sings, before a final proclamation, over stately, reserved piano and plucked strings, that “I’ve never included a name in a song / but I’m changing my ways for you / Jonathan”. It’s a spine-tingling moment in an almost unbearably intimate song.
I tend not to listen to Real Life of my own accord; I’ve stolen so much from my wife over the last decade and more, and guilt at my cultural kleptomania compels me to try and leave certain things as alone as I can, leave them as her things. Joan As Policewoman, and particularly this record, is one of those things. It lived in her car for a long time. I like it a lot more than I probably let on.