Joan Wasser's first Joan as Police Woman album, Real Life, mourned the loss of her lover, Jeff Buckley, while her second, To Survive, mourned the loss of her mother. The Deep Field, however, finds her alone but not lonely, still searching for something and finding beauty and even happiness, if not answers. Wasser reunited with producer Bryce Goggin for this set of songs, but the guests that popped up on her previous albums are notably absent, as is much of the sadness that made Real Life and To Survive as wrenching as they were compelling. Not that The Deep Field is entirely clear sailing: on “Nervous,” she’s shaken precisely because things are going so well with a new love, while on “Run for Love,” she cautions, “I don’t wanna talk on the future with you” even as she revels in togetherness. Here, her highs are as stratospheric as her lows were deep before; “The Action Man” starts as a spin around the dancefloor and ends with Wasser losing track of time and space. These unique twists she puts on happiness keep the album fresh, even when its second half ventures into the smoothest musical territory Wasser has yet explored.
This is the way a Joan Armatrading best-of collection should be assembled in the first place. The numerous single-disc compilations never came close to being representative of her achievement as a recording artist. Culling 43 tracks over eight years and 11 albums is even better in many ways than issuing an Armatrading box set. All of the expected material from the early years is included on disc one, such as "Cool Blue Stole My Heart," "Travel So Far," "Dry Land," "Down to Zero," "Love and Affection," "Help Yourself," "Woncha Come on Home," "Show Some Emotion," "Willow," "Barefoot and Pregnant," "Bottom to the Top," "You Rope You Tie Me," "Your Letter," and many more, including "The Flight of the Wild Geese" from the soundtrack to the film. It covers Armatrading's prolific period from 1975-1979, where a lot of old hippies, now upwardly mobile professionals seeking mellow escapes from their relentless and often ruthless pursuit of "the good life," got off the bus and remained stuck, listening only to her early records along with those of the Jacksons, Eagles, and James Taylor. The only problem with this is that Armatrading was just beginning to gain a confidence that led her to become really adventurous, taking huge chances with both her songwriting and production styles in the 1980s. She became a pop singer whose lyrics were anything but pop and whose music expanded the boundaries of pop to include reggae, jazz, and slippery folk music.
Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud's first solo album since leaving her 20-year gig with the celebrated Kronos Quartet finds her exploring areas that aren't exactly a huge departure from the type of edgy modern music she played with her old group, but it does show what she can do when given her own space to work with. The results are impressive. Most of the compositions are for solo cello with looped cello parts captured digitally or on tape, while one is written for cello and computer-generated sounds and another for cello and "electronics." The composers are a combination of names familiar (Steve Mackey, Philip Glass, Hamza el Din) and new (Mark Grey, Jeanrenaud herself), and while the pieces aren't all equally interesting there are several works of stunning beauty here. One of the most engaging is el Din's "Escalay + 17:10," with its looped Egyptian melodies, and another is Jeanrenaud's own "Altar Piece," which makes extensive use of electronic tone alteration and layering, and on which she exercises masterful control of whispery artificial harmonics. But the album's highlight is a piece by Karen Tanaka entitled "Song of Songs." Inspired by the Old Testament book of the same name, which is essentially an extended love song, Tanaka builds a sweet, simple, and beautifully textured work out of cello and computer-generated sounds. As always, Jeanrenaud's playing is virtuosic but never showy. Highly recommended.