Songwriters and musicians have long used emotional turmoil as a source of inspiration, but on The Classic -- which nods to '60s and '70s soul with its sound and title -- Joan Wasser proves that happiness can make for smart, relatable songs too. Even though this is easily her most joyous album, it isn't completely new territory. Joan as Police Woman's previous albums showed that Wasser can set loss, grief, and acceptance to song like few others and also had uplifting moments that broke through like sunbeams. And while plenty of singers -- most notably Amy Winehouse's mod neo-soul and Chan Marshall in her Memphis-flavored era -- have revisited this kind of sound, Wasser puts her own stamp on it. The Classic is full of smoky vocals and slinky melodies that are unmistakably hers; they're just lit up. The results are some of her most accessible music yet, such as the radiant closing track, "Ask Me." At times, the instrumentation borders on clich‚d instead of classic; after half a century of peppy brass and wah-wah guitars signifying "happy" and "empowered," it's hard to wring anything new out of those sounds. More often than not, Wasser manages to do just that by playing against the expectations of upbeat soul music as much as she plays into them: the title track mixes beatboxing and doo wop vocals as it sings the praises of being innocent enough to fall in love and mature enough to move on from the past, while "Shame" uses its brassy choruses to banish a "dirty space invader." The mix of clarity and sensuality in Wasser's songwriting makes The Classic's message -- that happiness is an active choice rather than a passive state -- all the more dynamic. The album's best songs aren't about being happy, but what it takes to be ready for happiness. On the bold opener, "Witness," Wasser depicts her self-defeating thoughts as "a tape that's played forever"; "Good Together" dispels the nostalgia around an old flame with a massive, cobweb-clearing beat; and "What Would You Do" underscores her impatience with people and situations that don't work. Joan as Police Woman takes almost as many musical risks as emotional ones on The Classic, particularly on lengthy tracks like "Get Direct" and "New Year's Day," but this bravery is usually rewarded, and rewarding. While the album's brightness may take some getting used to, listeners who love her music for how well she expresses feelings that are universal yet hard to articulate will appreciate how vividly The Classic captures joy and what it takes to get it. ~ Heather Phares
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