Music

Joan As Police Woman’s latest album is animated by legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, recorded shortly before his death last year. By Cat Woods.

The Solution Is Restless

Joan Wasser, who performs as Joan As Police Woman.
Credit: Lindsey Byrnes

The roots of Joan Wasser’s ninth album as Joan As Police Woman, The Solution Is Restless, are firmly earthed in Africa. Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) first invited her to Ethiopia to take part in his cross-cultural collaborative event Africa Express in 2011. The trip exposed her to a musicality that has filtered through her albums since, though never so openly and joyously as on her latest album.

The secret ingredient is the legendary Nigerian musician Tony Allen, who died last year, aged 79. Albarn introduced Wasser to the renowned drummer and songwriter at a 2019 Africa Express event in London, where they performed a version of Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”. It convinced them both that a fruitful collaboration lay in their future.

Allen was the musical director and drummer for Fela Kuti’s band Africa for just over a decade. Kuti considered him to be the pioneer of the Afrobeat sound, while Brian Eno said he was “perhaps the greatest drummer who has ever lived”. Allen was raised on a diet of American jazz, Ghanaian drumming and highlife, which resulted in a deliciously heavy groove that is a direct invitation to the body to move with the beat.

In late 2019 Wasser scheduled an evening recording session in Allen’s home city of Paris. She flew her friend Dave Okumu (The Invisible) over from London, and the trio jammed into the early hours of morning at Midilive Studios in Villetaneuse. According to Wasser, there was no concept, no theme: she wanted it to be an organic, freewheeling act of creation. Wasser left the session with hours of recorded drums and keyboard. Then the pandemic cancelled life as she knew it, and Wasser – stuck at home with hours of raw material – set to work cutting and pasting, writing lyrics, inventing elaborate string arrangements and ultimately crafting this album. It is one of Allen’s last recordings.

Allen’s curiosity for cross-genre electronica, rhythm and blues, funk, jazz and soul mirrors Wasser’s restless desire to slip into various musical guises. Her 2020 covers album (Cover Two), in which she pays homage to Prince, The Strokes, Outkast and Blur, saw her own each of those performer’s songs as if she’d written them. Her cover of Blur’s “Out of Time” is even more melancholy than Albarn’s original version.

On The Solution Is Restless, the friendship and professional cohesion between Wasser, Allen and Albarn is evident in their collaboration “Get My Bearings”. The cascade of piano keys and patter of cymbals that open the track seem to emanate, illuminated, from the dark. The drumbeat stutters and trips, given a nurturing hand by the vocals of Wasser and Albarn.

The yearning chorus – “Will I ever get my bearings, will I ever see?” – gains momentum from Okumu’s simple bassline. “What will you do, with the rest of your day, with the rest of your life?” sings Wasser. “You don’t know the sun will rise tomorrow.” Albarn’s background vocals – he harmonises, mid-song, “maybe it’s love that rescues us?” – are gorgeously subtle, pushing Wasser’s sometimes heartbreaking questions to the fore as she ponders in the final moments of the song, “Will I ever see? Do I even care? Does it matter?”

The Solution Is Restless is foreshadowed in the percussion and reverberating horns of her 2014 album The Classic, and her 2016 collaboration with Benjamin Lazar Davis (Let It Be You), which revealed layers of melodic electronica, playful keys, the kick and snare of real and synthetic percussion and woozy vocals. These are the ingredients that make “Take Me To Your Leader” so enticing. The organ-horns-piano jam pays homage to New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern – “Word on the street is she’s a healer / I know I’m down to obey” – whom Wasser watched on television when she was stuck in her Brooklyn apartment under Donald Trump’s malevolent presidency.

Wasser’s confidence in setting the tone and direction of her music is clear, whether it’s with one collaborator or many. Her collaborators on The Solution Is Restless include Meshell Ndegeocello on bass and Aviram Barath on Moog synths for the opening track, “The Barbarian”. The atmospheric, multilayered instrumental arrangements are for the most part Wasser performing solo on synths, strings, piano, 12-string acoustic guitar, organ, bass and additional percussion. Trumpeter Cole Kamen-Green is a welcome addition on a few tracks, including on the smouldering “Masquerader”.

Wasser’s rich vocal timbre – almost like a hymn – pays homage to the woman she is, a survivor. Her singing is alive, bristling with her liberated spirit. The 51-year-old was adopted as a child and says that it took time to find her place in her family, country, body, career and musicality. She has said in the past that her violin spoke for her before she found her voice. “I’m ready to feel the sun on my shoulders, watch the water fill my footprints in the sand,” she croons. “Just watch me, just watch me go. Not gonna do what I always do, ’cause I wanna live by this song.”

The tone is less introspective and more imaginative on “Dinner Date”. It’s a sultry affair built upon a languid, laid-back tempo. She is imagining a dinner date between predatory female fireflies (the female Photuris fireflies are known for luring and devouring the males of their species) and their unsuspecting partners. An occasional strain of violins rises through the gentle percussion and Wasser’s falsetto invitation to “stay alive” for as long as dinner takes. Wasser sounds alluring, but don’t be fooled – she can be fierce.

One of the best tracks dials up the steam towards the final stretch of the album. “Geometry of You” is a compelling number. Never have right angles, axioms and geometry sounded so seductive. Wasser’s glassy falsetto slithers around the melody, cooing, “I’m calculating the lines, finding arrangements ... but you just might give me the answer. How do you like it? Oh, how do you like it?”

Like this, Joan: groovy, uplifting and restless.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 20, 2021 as "Out of Africa".

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Cat Woods is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and culture critic.