Here’s the only reason it’s still important to know that Joan Wasser was Jeff Buckley’s girlfriend: She’s the woman who inspired Buckley’s “Everybody Here Wants You,” easily one of the sexiest songs ever written. So even before we hear a note of To Survive, her second album with her band Joan As Police Woman, we know she’s gotta be pretty hot shit. And hot shit she is. Tricked-out AOR tracks “Holiday” and “Hard White Wall” drip cocaine sweat and encourage lurid shag-carpet fantasies; cosmic torch songs don’t get better than “The Start of My Heart,” which perfectly couples a gauzy Sitek-style production with Wasser’s casual floorboard creak of an R&B croon.
On the album’s more intimate, singer-songwriterly material, Wasser’s distanced New York attitude gets in the way a bit. She comes off as Feist’s moody, intellectual sister, more interested in dissecting love and pain than reliving it through song. Even the infinitive-heavy song titles — “To Be Loved,” “To Be Lonely,” “To Survive” — reach for profundity, as if To Survive were an instruction manual as much as an album.
Wasser’s a collaborator at heart (she was a charter member of the Dambuilders and worked with Lou Reed, Antony & the Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright, who guests on “To America”), and she sounds most natural when she’s backed by horns and keys and backing vox and slinky grooves. It’s here where the lack of immediacy actually works — hooks are left to smolder amidst through-composed song structures and opulent musical trappings, all musical theater style, leaving the emotional import just around the corner, waiting to be discovered. It’s there. Just takes some digging.