A crossover is neither this nor that. If done well, it's both, adequately wooing two otherwise dissimilar sects of music lovers. Commercially, it can be the golden ticket: one record contract, twice the audience.
Artistically, it can suck major ass. The idea tarnished jazz in the '70s. It castrated country by the early '80s. It resulted in the unwanted deformo-child of rap-rock in the '90s. But there were moments. Namely Bitches Brew and Rage Against the Machine (the absence of a country-pop standout is not unintentional).
New York's Joan Wasser is having a moment.
With Real Life, she's landed somewhere between Norah Jones and Feist. And somewhere, there in the middle, are a few million album sales and a parcel of indie cred. That's not to say this album of ominous indie-jazz feels like a marketing ploy. Whether or not she invented the hybrid, Joan owns it on Real Life--her piano-and-strings ballads are like Nina Simone reincarnated as a Williamsburg scion. Plus, she's too close to Feist to sell a cool mil. Violins are tortured on a few tracks; noise is made for its own sake. The semi-Gregorian moans beneath some songs are too menacing for Wal-Mart shoppers.
No story of Wasser can be told without telling what she lost--namely, her ex-lover Jeff Buckley, who drowned in the selfish waters of the Mississippi. OK, that's that. Maybe the point is that she kept good company. Still does. On Real Life, it's Antony Hegarty, better known as the Boy Georgian voice of Antony & The Johnsons. The androgynous torch singer aptly steps in for an R&B banger called 'I Defy,' which cryptically expresses the desire to uncover one's true, heretofore hidden, self.
Whether because of Buckley's brutally premature death or a larger sample size of heartache, a lot of Real Life expresses desire while simultaneously cataloguing the potential fallout. Wasser's Real Life is not a terribly happy one. It's one in which she's been burned and is continually anticipating the next blazing bummer. But she wrings a touching sense of survivor's beauty from the psychic charcoal, placing her side-by-side with bruised beauties like Cat Power and Fiona Apple.