Joan As Police Woman
As noted last week, I’m a bit of a connoisseur of the cover song. So it was with no small excitement that I dug into Joan As Police Woman’s second batch of covers – appropriately titled Cover Two.
Joan Wasser has been using the moniker Joan As Police Woman for her recordings since 2002, producing a high-quality stripe of mellow R&B/jazz-pop that’s been recognized by Q Magazine and the Independent Music Awards (among others). Along the way she’s worked with a million great people, toured the world, and shown a keen eye for the unusual cover (For real. Her first cover record has a version of Public Enemy’s “She Watch Channel Zero” that needs to be heard to be believed). There’s a lazy urge to compare her against women like Norah Jones and Alicia Keys, but it’s disingenuous; Wasser can be slow but she’s never sleepy and is much more interested in your mind than your hips, plus she’s seriously a better songwriter than either.
So, Cover Two. It’s an eclectic batch of songs to say the least. Prince, Blur, Outkast, Talk Talk – it reads like a critic’s pick list of the last 50 years; a few big hits, a few deep tracks from known artists, a few “I’m not sure who that is”. I’ll confess I had to look up a couple of these myself. That said, the genius of the good cover is in making a song yours but keeping enough of the core to speak to the original. Largely, Joan As Police Woman does that – Cover Two is a pack of good covers.
Not every track can survive major changes, and that can be double for songs that have had other successful covers like “Kiss”. This version, despite its downtempo treatment, seethes with a smokey sensuality; Wasser has a fire in her, and she’s decided to throw some kerosene on it. It’s a promising opener – whatever else may come, Joan is not fucking around here. That intensity plays very well across most of Cover Two, transforming snoozers like Michael MacDonald’s adult-contemporary smash “I Keep Forgetting” into brilliant slow-burn tension (for clarity, “I Keep Forgetting” has fantastic lyrics, I just never liked its original arrangement or Michael McDonald’s voice). It’s a joy to hear real feelings put into “Under Control” instead of Julian Casablancas’ habitual drollness. Serious good stuff.
I’m going to put an asterisk on 3 of these tracks, which happen to be in a row – Blur’s “Out of Time”, Neil Young’s “On the Beach”, and “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” (best known for being in Grease). I don’t like the originals of these; in particular, I have a serious dislike of the slow end of Neil Young (I can already feel the hate mail coming in). So while I find these to be a “meh” valley between the highs in the center and end of the record, I’m not faulting Joan for that. It really is me, not her.
That said, those three tracks are bracketed by sheer genius. Wasser’s take on Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It” is legit better than the original, centered on a massive bass groove that transforms the song into a rich slab of soul (I think Mark Hollis would’ve really liked it). The closer, though, is the show-stealer. “Running” is stripped bare, almost nothing but a wide open piano and Wasser’s voice – and in the process shows that it’s not merely a good song it’s a great one. It’s a powerful place to leave a listener, and I hope she’s closing her encores with it for years to come.
Joan As Police Woman takes on a lot of songs on Cover Two that have a ton of meat on them in their original forms; that they come out lean and trim (not merely chopped down) is a testament to Wasser’s ability to find the heart of a song. I’ll be keeping this one in mind when I’m looking at my 2020 best-of list.
Pros: Some amazing, intense takes on a surprisingly wide stripe of songs. Two of the best covers I’ve heard in years. Meshell Ndegeocello doing vocals on an Outkast song. What’s not to love?
Cons: Normally I’d say there’s a slow patch on the back half of it; this time I’m just going to say listen and judge for yourself.
Bottom Line: Buy it – it’s really, really good.