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The Deep Field
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The Deep Field
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Vinyl, 24 Jan 2011
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The Deep Field opens with a song called Nervous, wherein a tribal field recording yields to squalls of guitar, an airy drumbeat and Joan Wasser’s declaration of "I want you to fall in love with me". It is an assured, confident start – indeed, it is anything but nervous – that sets the scene perfectly for what Wasser has called her "most open, joyous" record to date: a flawed, fascinating piece of work that takes its title from a distant pocket of space and concerns itself with love and impulsiveness amid countless aspects of contemporary life.
A denser affair than 2008’s To Survive, it fizzes and bursts with plush instrumentation, augmenting her trademark keys with strings, horns and electric guitar in a manner that occasionally threatens to drown out her smooth delivery. Certainly, it doesn’t make much sense at first, lacking the impact of that album’s tear-stained confessionals or the sense of arrival that greeted debut set Real Life. But the ambition present reveals itself gradually, repeated listens opening up these long, sometimes languorous songs.
Wasser has always been far more interesting than a cursory listen to her records might suggest, the idiosyncratic banter of her live shows hinting at a strangeness that suits The Deep Field very well. Found-sound collages and studio chatter colour the album as it segues from one song to the next, rarely faltering. Lead single The Magic lopes along on a sleek riff that finds Wasser lost in a maze of her own making; The Action Man builds, builds and builds for the entirety of its five-minute run; Chemmie dwells on lust in sweet falsetto not a million miles away from Prince; I Was Everyone makes for a bracing finish; Forever and a Year is just gorgeous. Only Human Condition slows proceedings somewhat, an exercise in laid-back soul that veers a little too far towards the inconsequential.
But as a whole, The Deep Field nails it. True, the songs are long, it is almost ceaselessly rich, and you’re going to want to skip its first 30 seconds every time. Yet there is something fantastically indulgent and heartening going on here: the sense that Wasser is embracing her peculiarities and making giddy, ebullient light of them. Long may she continue to do so.
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Her sparse debut, Real Life, introduced her fractured confidence with aplomb. Its follow up, To Survive, was an understandably more mute offering that focused on her mother's death for inspiration. The Deep Field is noticeably less introspective. Wasser's choice of artwork confirms it, her fleshed out compositions too.
As a consequence, fewer of her trademark, melancholic piano ballads pepper the running order - "Forever And A Year" is a noteworthy, organ-filled exception from where the album's title comes. Yet, as Wasser's fragility was also often her strength, what then to make of The Deep Field?
Though the Joan As Police Woman sound of now appears to look backwards for reference, back to a time when "easy listening" wasn't a dirty classification, this third original outing is nevertheless an evolution for Wasser, a regaining of confidence as the groove-laden, crowd-splitting "Human Condition" potentially shows. What's certain is that the track is as unabashedly erotic as Wasser has ever been, soulfully playing off against slap bass, as well as her regular contributor Joseph Arthur and his best Mark Lanegan-style vocal impression.
Apparently then now back in love, we can forgive Wasser the occasional mistread. For, even if it doesn't all work for all listeners ("Nervous" seems little more than a synth-y, echoing amble), at least she's trying to break out from within her own brackets. For example, "Chemmie" and its 70s electric-funk/soul has grand, nearly-fulfilled allusions of Diana Ross collaborating with Stevie Wonder - something unexpected to say the least from Wasser.
Elsewhere, the funk on "The Magic" is likeably memorable, and "Flash" is an accomplised, eight-minute exercise in odd harmonies that allow the experimental vocoding in "Run For Love" to pass unnoticed in comparison.
Overall, The Deep Field is unquestionably smooth. Yet, it could be said that it's the skilful combination of its disparate elements that allow it to be so. Though benefit of the doubt permits the album to stay happily afloat, Wasser may have to pack a few more emotional punches to remain so in future.