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It can’t be easy being Joan Wasser, better known as Joan as Police Woman. Perennially overshadowed by acts like Feist (and, lately, Florence and the Machine), Wasser hasn’t quite made her mark in the era of the indie chanteuse.
Wasser’s bona fides are certainly there: The erstwhile violinist for The Dambuilders and girlfriend of the late Jeff Buckley, she’s also played with artsy warbler Antony Hegarty and the irascible Lou Reed. The previous two Joan as Police Woman records hinted at big things; gifted with a sultry voice and a whipsmart knack for arrangements, Wasser seemed perpetually close to issuing a crowning collection of torch songs. By all accounts, The Deep Field should have been it.
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Advance press indicated Wasser had mothballed somber ballads in favor of more upbeat material. Although she comes by her grief honestly, there’s no reason she shouldn’t have tried something different after 2008’s Survive, released in the wake of her mother’s death. Mourning can make for powerful music, but Joan as Police Woman sometimes comes across as too fastidious, a characteristic she has in common with fellow violinist-songsmith Andrew Bird. So what does the loosened-up, post-loss Wasser sound like? A bit like Feist, actually, minus the homespun exuberance and Apple endorsements.
The Deep Field isn’t a complete bust, even when crossing the line into adult-contemporary schlock. Indie music is in the midst of its own quiet storm, and Wasser occasionally manages to call down some thunder. “Kiss the Specifics” is a well-decorated confection that splits the difference between Regina Spektor and early Hall & Oates—the sonic equivalent of a red velvet cupcake. “Run for Love” is minor-key slink with gritty percussion and male backing vocals.
Other tracks are less compelling. “Human Condition” is readymade for in-store play at Banana Republic: It’s possible that Wasser is imparting something deep, but whatever message there might be is utterly overshadowed by a farty bassline and reggae-lite percussion. Equally flimsy is “Chemmie,” which actually employs the phrase “we’ve got chemmie” to describe a front-burner relationship. All the horn shouts and organ sweeps in the world couldn’t save it from terminal flaccidity.
Not everyone gets to be a top-tier indie star. It seems unfair that Joan Wasser’s years in the trenches, both as sidewoman and solo artist, haven’t paid off like the experiences of her better-known contemporaries. If she feels any disappointment, it’s probably mirrored by her fans, waiting for her to deliver a masterpiece. Unfortunately, The Deep Field makes keeping the faith feel too much like charity.