Joan as Police Woman
Joan Wasser isn't exactly what you would call a household name, although she has played alongside plenty of them, but on the basis of this record, she soon will be.
Real Life is a gorgeous collection of classic pop songs that matches up to, and on occasion surpasses the work she has done with Antony and the Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright.
While the album could be played at its core on one piano, the ten tracks on display here are sparsely embellished with violin sweeps, deftly strummed guitars, horns and electronic textures, and are underpinned by the steady rhythm section of Rainy Orteca and Ben Perowsky. On listening to it, you get the feeling that every note, every arrangement, every sound on this record is there for a reason, and has been meticulously crafted. There is not an ounce of fat on any of these pieces.
It doesn't take long to surmise, though, that the main attraction here is the vocal abilities of Joan Wasser. Never anything less than compelling, dexterous but never showy, her Nina Simone tinged vocals veer from breathy and delicate (on lead-off single "The Ride"), to brassy and sharp (on the excellent Antony Hegarty duet, "I Defy"), and even into falsetto (on the album's funkiest offering, "Save Me.") This is the same kind of true singer-songwriter album that Jeff Buckley produced back in 1994. That's not to say that Real Life quite reaches the heights of Grace, but it is certainly not far away, and should dispell any lazy Melua comparisons.
Not only is the music far superior to such Radio 2 staples, there is a far wider musical pallette on display here, and the odd moments of twitchy noise hint at an underlying darkness, but the songs are lyrically more substantial than your average mainstream easy listening chanteuse. "Anyone" is a fine example of Wasser's fine lyrical ability, to an old school soul backdrop, she croons sweetly, "Blaring car horns howl/ To feedback from the city", and evokes vivid images of the demanding metropolis of NYC better than any coked-up rich boy could hope to.
While all of the tracks on display here share a consistent tone, there is enough variety to keep things interesting. "Feed the Light" recalls Kid A era Radiohead with its jewellery box piano, wobbly synths and menacing noise, and "Christobel" is a relatively fast paced rocker complete with a fine guitar solo, the only one on the album.
Also, it is a rather short album, so it never gets dull, and never loses your attention. Of course, the nature of the songs is enough to grab you for the duration, but the fact that the collection is succinct makes the entire record a memorable one, and one that you can revisit, and lose yourself in time and time again.