Why you should care
Because this is one of our favorite records of 2016.
In 2016, the world is your oyster if you’re a music fan. If you’re a musician, though? Significantly tougher to thrive, given the realities of streaming services, royalties processes stuck in the 20th century and the difficulties in getting a label to market a release past the first month. And if you’re Joan Wasser, also known as Joan as Police Woman, it’s Real Life — not only the name of her 2006 album but the cool core of all of her six solo releases.
“Like Lou Reed was whispering to me,” says critically acclaimed painter, singer-songwriter, poet and collaborator Joseph Arthur, who’s also been touring as a one-man band for some 20 years. “That Warhol style. Which Joan is a direct descendant of, in that she keeps the important thread alive, of the vulnerable becoming powerful thru art, even as they appear cool as fuck in the New York City night.”
That’s Joan. The classically trained musician, who played piano at 6 and violin at 8, has been in both a symphony and punk bands and has collaborated with a heady music-world constellation: Anohni (she was a member of Antony and the Johnsons), the Grammy-nominated Canadian-American vocalist and composer Rufus Wainwright, Joseph Arthur, Sheryl Crow, John Cale and, yes, Lou Reed. And the same Joan whom Wainwright calls “the full package artistically” and whose work he pegs as “a successful synergy between several disparate musical languages: funk, classical, folk music, rock.”
And now her Let It Be You (Reveal Records, out October 21) shows a whole other Joan — a Joan in one-on-one collaboration with an artist who complements her and whom she complements: multi-instrumentalist and composer Benjamin Lazar Davis. “My other records are so in conversation with myself,” says Wasser. “In this project, the entire way through it was Ben and I bouncing ideas off each other, always bouncing, bouncing, bouncing.” It was “essentially a Bouncy Bounce,” says Lazar Davis, who also plays with the band Cuddle Magic.
This record is rooted in the music of the Central African Republic, a landlocked nation in the continent’s dead center. Both of the Brooklyn-based artists had spent time in Africa and were enthralled by pygmy music. Last year, Lazar Davis released Bawa, influenced by the music of northwestern Ghana, with Lake Street Dive’s Bridget Kearney. For Let It Be You, he and Wasser built the whole record around pygmy rhythms including the ostinato, a repeating pattern that runs through a piece of music while other elements change around it.
“We took the rhythm and pitches and put them on bit-crushed electric guitar and performed that over and over again in a loop,” he says, referencing both Herbie Hancock and Louis Sarno recordings on the Pitt Rivers Museum website. “From there, we melodized and harmonized and lyricized, making these pop songs based on polyrhythmic odd loops.” Because a complex rhythm is so dominant, says Wasser, it forced her to work with simpler songs. “I can tend to write a song with a lot of chords, and many of them I have to take out because it’s too complicated,” she says. “It’s a blessing for me when I can make something more simple.”
If this all sounds academic, just listen. On “Overloaded” and “Broke Me in Two,” for instance, an ostinato opens the track — bold, chunky, charming, fun. (You can hear both now via the two auto-mechanic-themed videos that Wasser and Lazar Davis did with Fred Armisen of SNL, Portlandia and ’90s punk band Trenchmouth.) Then it slips down and generates a wiry subterranean energy. The result is danceable, unusual and infectious. “It’s fantastic, upbeat with a dark sensibility,” Wainwright says of the album. Also audible is the intensity of the collaboration — listening to Let It Be You feels like eavesdropping on a highly intimate conversation. (Wasser: “That’s because you are.”) Their two voices in harmony are velvet-soft with a hint of 5 o’clock shadow. Together they explore the rapture and torture of obsessive love, highway getaways, the simultaneous longing for and emptiness of instant gratification. You won’t be alone in shedding a layer or two and wondering, “Is it hot in here all of a sudden?”
OZY is pleased to premiere “Satellite.”
Wasser and Lazar Davis created the song’s skeleton with an ostinato, but once they’d set the harmonic movement, they took it out. (You can still hear it in the beginning, after the chorus, and at the end.) Removing that complicated pattern creates space, says Wasser. Lazar Davis says he likes the idea of building something with some repeated thing happening but then removing it. “The space that was created in the song from this complex thing repeating throughout it,” he says, “leaves the negative space of where that thing was.”
The track opens with isolation and a stifling sense of persecution: “I’m alone in this town, I’m alone in it; the morning sun runs me down for the fun of it.”
Speaker tells confidant to shut the windows and rev the engines … it’s time. I’m out. “I’m gone satellite I’m gone,” whispers the chorus. But not without an unnerving fiery goodbye. The song burns with a shimmery, glassy heat, then shifts to the mythical: “See the moon in the water / and the train pigeons scatter / feel the wind sweep me / waves push me out and then in.” It’s what might happen when the soul and the body separate.
There’s a word for music that takes us to that moment: magic.