Joan Wasser’s work as Joan as Police Woman has always been soulful, but her fifth album, The Classic, is her biggest step into soul as a genre. While the album hops across a jukebox-full of styles, the disc largely grasps at retro soul straws, the production glossy and full, the instrumentation precise and rich, the vocals impeccable. But some of the choices seem forced, experiments that lack the emotional immediacy of both classic soul and Wasser’s past work.
Wasser is a unique, powerful voice, and that makes even the weakest Joan as Police Woman record salvageable. The horn punches and upbeat chorus harmonies of “Holy City” come off like the soundtrack to a ’90s romantic comedy, or even the theme song to the Gilmore Girls. But when she gets to the verses, her dynamic range and emotive qualities make even that proposition bearable. The twee title track gets a beat-box assist from Reggie Watts (yes, that Reggie Watts), the a cappella throwback pop and simple lyrics a bit limp, but there’s no denying that lead vocal when she’s spelling out the song title a la Aretha.
When the pastiche succeeds, as on the swampy stomp of opening track “Witness” or the vampy “Good Together”, it’s because the music reaches Wasser’s voice, strength for strength. The climactic, chaotic scramble of horns, guitar, and synth on the latter of those two tracks is the only thing that could match her full-throated declaration that she “don’t want to be nostalgic for something that never was.” The shuffling, intimate rhythm of “Get Direct” similarly complements her seductive, love-giddy drift.
But the scattershot approach in the sound (sometimes the keyboards come off as a Doors homage, sometimes building into an R&B ultra-smooth) means that even Wasser’s acrobatics can’t leap seamlessly from one track to another (though she does give it her all). No matter how much fun it appears to be for Wasser to try on all these different hats, developing a stronger focus on soul — or doo-wop, or girl groups, or R&B — would improve the impact considerably.
Essential Tracks: “Witness”, “Good Together”, and “Get Direct”