Music Reviews
The Classic

Joan As Police Woman The Classic

(PIAS) Buy it from Insound Rating - 5/10

In the most recent issue of football quarterly, The Blizzard, journalist Phillippe Auclair writes a thought-provoking piece which ponders whether the oft-quoted links between football and chess are really justified. Nowadays, it’s become a cliché for any tactical battle of attrition on the pitch to be described as “like a game of chess”, but Auclair does an admirable job of debunking the myth of the football-chess axis.

One counter-example in Auclair’s argument references the current vogue for using opening gambits previously thought entirely obsolete, mentioning in particular a match in 2013 where grandmaster Magnus Carlsen began proceedings with the Ponziani opening – a quintet of moves first referenced in literature in the 15th Century yet seldom seen in competitive chess today – and won. While this kind of approach – using archaic concepts to counter-intuitively breathe new life into a stagnating culture – may occur in chess, there’s no parallel in football, since any team with a tactical set-up akin to those commonplace in the early days of the professional game would be embarrassingly annihilated by their more sophisticated opponents.

Though it probably doesn’t seem like it, this is in some way relevant to the world of popular music and, furthermore, The Classic, the fifth studio album from Connecticut multi-instrumentalist Joan Wasser aka Joan As Police Woman. It’s easy to assume that everything’s been done in music now, and that while artists and songs can still excite you, it’s unlikely there’ll ever be anything again which shakes the world in the same way that, say, The Beatles or Elvis Presley did. Genre trends in music come and go, and occasionally something that seemed hopelessly passé can come full circle and become à la mode again. But if there’s nothing entirely new to be done, is it possible, like Carlsen and his Ponziani opening strategy, to take something now largely ignored and written off, and because of its incongruity, make it appear brand new?

Whether intentional or not, it’s something Joan As Police Woman achieves on The Classic’s title track; the obvious album stand-out. It’s a largely a cappella song and indebted to the doo-wop tradition of the 1950s, and in today’s musical landscape, it’s a shining beacon that stands out against predictable trends and tropes. It’s strongly melodic and the kind of track that instantly puts a smile on your face. However, where Wasser seeks to incorporate elements of other genres into her soul-flecked singer-songwriter torch songs – the reggae lilt in Ask Me, the jazzy inflections of What Would You Do – it falls flat, as if she’s simply playing dress-up rather than truly inhabiting the songs.

Also noteworthy is Good Together, which lurches uneasily from bar to bar. It repeats the line, “Don’t wanna be nostalgic,” over and over in the chorus, before swirling and building dramatically to a tempestuous coda of layer upon layer of feedback and distortion. Thrillingly, each time you think the track will finish, it takes it up another notch before ending not with a climax, but an implosion, as if the sheer weight of the track has caused it to collapse inwardly on itself.

Elsewhere, The Classic largely does what you’d expect from a Joan As Police Woman album. It’s above-average and well put together, making good use of full orchestration, particularly on the earlier tracks. In fact, on some of the more grandiose arrangements, such as the purposeful and driving album opener, Witness, she recalls the approach and richness of former collaborator, Rufus Wainwright. However, it seems to be an album to appreciate rather than enjoy – while there are plenty of technical elements to recommend it, The Classic just lacks that indefinable quality that would make you return to it repeatedly. In fact, you feel you’ve heard everything the album has to offer by the time you’re two thirds through, and there’s no incentive to give it another spin – cruelly ironic for an artist signed to a label whose name is an acronym for the famous Casablanca misquotation, “Play it again, Sam”.

And here’s the main issue with The Classic. A couple of stellar tracks aside, there’s little to get truly enthusiastic about and in a market so saturated, the biggest crime possible is to be unmemorable. While the recycling of forgotten ideas on the title track might be of grandmaster quality, the rest of The Classic is fit for neither that moniker, nor its own title.