Following the release of two incredibly good albums in recent years, 'The Deep Field' from 2011 and 'The Classic' from 2014, Joan APW has decided to throw a slight curve ball on her latest record, 'Let It Be You'. For this, her 5th full length album proper, she has teamed up with producer, performer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist and serial collaborator, Benjamin Lazar Davis. (Joan herself is knowingly never averse to an opportunity to collaborate either having previously worked with Antony Hegarty, Lou Reed, Brian Molko and Lloyd Cole amongst many others)
With both artists mining a rich vein of creativity in isolation the prospect of a joint venture would, at least conceptually, sound very appealing. Where Joan excels is in her delivery and expression. Her soulful, smouldering, sometimes smoking vocal is a wonderful thing to experience. It's often said of many an artist that they have a unique, individual or immediately identifiable voice but it's also often a crock of sh**. Joan however is the real deal, the reason why so many other artists want to work with her, want to use her vocal, want her input or desire her participation. Joan defies classification because of the diversity of her work but at the very least, certainly in terms of contemporary soul vocalists, there are few who come close to touching her.
So why Benjamin? What does Ben bring to the table that's made Joan hook up and make an entire album? Has he brought anything identifiable, anything to make this a worthwhile and productive collaboration? On balance I'd have to say yes he has on both counts. If you don't explore the possibilities you'll never know what could have been and throughout 'Let It Be You' the pair are clearly keen on shaping a new sound through a creative musical exploration.
'Let It Be You' isn't alone in framing Joan's fantastic vocal as the pivotal point in most of the ten songs, however the framework on which her voice is mounted has changed. On this album the arrangements have a more angular, sometimes jagged, occasionally semi-industrial setting. From the opening bars of 'Broke Me In Two' there is an obvious intention to set some of the instrumentation as a foil to the vocals, rather than to completely blend with them. The title track, and more heightened example, 'Violent Dove', is similarly set. This, I would imagine, is where Ben has probably made his impact. There is a more of a percussive bent to some of the tracks, more of a juxtaposition between vocal and soundtrack and less of a smooth polished production to this album than some of Joan's previous work.
Where 'Let It Be You' also obviously differs is in the shared vocal tracks. The brilliant, unashamedly, proper pop of 'Overloaded' and more moody, contemplative and brooding 'Motorway' see the pair working well as a duo. Where they shine on the album together though is in the less contemporary, lovelorn lament of 'Hurts So Bad'. Here the slower beat, softer vocal, keys, occasional guitar floorishes and well versed lyrics ensure the track sours as Joan and Benjamin duet so effectively.
This is where the balance of the exploratory rather than, possibly unimaginatively for some, playing to your strengths quandary exposes the albums one slight flaw. Joan is brilliant at what she does best, and her best here, as with her previous albums, is not in the somewhat quirky tweaks and twists but in her more classical soulful guise. The epic and evocative closer 'Station', smooth and sultry 'Easy Money' and sensationally sung 'Satellite' are all quite brilliant. The masterpiece on 'Let It Be You' however has to be 'Magic Lamp'. Joan's soft and soothing vocal delivers up a song of such fantastic quality. The harmonies and melodies underline just how good her voice, expression and performance are. This is a stunning piece of artistry; vocally, musically and in its production.
'Let It Be You' is an interesting album full of fabulous moments. Joan and Benjamin's collaboration has produced an album packed full of creativity and many a surprise. That said, whilst it's nice to explore....it's always good to come home too!
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