Thursday, May 17, 2007

Let the temperature rise

Joan as Police Woman

Christobel - Joan as Police Woman

The photo on the cover of the very good, very complicated pop album Real Life
, is a portrait of false dichotomies. Stagelit, Joan Wasser angles her shoulders and chin slightly defiant, even confrontational, and her eyes lock the camera's lens, fierce, like she's watching it watching her. Yet her lips are set tremulous (she could cry on a dime) and her golden-brown shag halos her face. Around her neck Wasser wears a slab of brassy hardware in the shape of an apple. Or possibly a peach. Does the fruit matter? Maybe ... it could be the difference between a fallen and defiant Eve and some soft southern belle. Devil and angel. Tough chick and the pliable kind who always says yes. Wasser, as Joan as Police Woman (after Angie Dickinson's 70s cop drama), plays both, but mostly neither. Mostly more. Over the course of 10 gritty and glamorous songs, heatseekers and heatmakers with titles like "Flushed Chest" and "Eternal Flame," she is complicated. She demands (in the words of Lil Mama and my fave jam of the mo, "Lip Gloss"), "whatcha know bout me?" Less than you think.

An article in last Sunday's New York Times on the elusive quest for online music success includes this among its for-what-their-worth findings: Artists should post to their Myspace page the song that's "immediately catchy, yet not necessarily the strongest" on their album. "Christobel" is wedged somewhat ignominiously in the middle of Real Life, between the aforementioned "Flushed Chest," a poignant, aching thing reportedly written about Wasser's late boyfriend Jeff Buckley, and torrid piano-soul ballad "Save Me." But it streamed at the top of JAPW's Myspace for months (120,733 plays) and it's easy to hear why. Among tracks couched in the blended vocabularies of jazz, cabaret, classic soul, top-40 diva pop, "Christobel's" the only thing approaching a rocker on the record, speaking a less exotic dialect that incorporates 90s alt-rock (including a brief electric solo that probably could have found space on a song by Wasser's former band, The Dambuilders) and something earlier -- the rock chick lexicons of Joan Jett and Pat Benetar perhaps. And it's propulsive, hooky and mysterious. It's an elliptical supernatural noir about a shadowy Christobel and her (possibly already dead) amour that plunges down dark city alleys with light, tripping beats and a bendy bassline rubbing up against distorted violins and moaning, blistered backing vocals that at first sound female, then like ghostly men out of tune and out of range. Gender ambiguity is central to the song. Wasser addresses Christobel, "why won't you fall in love with me?" but you don't get the sense that this is a lesbian serenade. Listen to the way Wasser delivers the chorus, "Yes, [beat] Christobel," like a little grunt, like she's pumping her fist -- a totally masculine phraseology. She's channeling a guy. To further support my little argument, consider again the title of the album and the songs that precede this one: songs that toy with identity, that waver and stumble between the actual and fictive, the biographical and auto-, the acting and the audience, and all the good, meaty, real stuff that lies in the short distance between.

A year after coming out in Europe, Real Life is finally seeing a release this side of the Atlantic in June (Cheap Lullaby, Amazon).


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