Aiming to please: Joanne sounds like Joni

Press packs, usually comprised of a short bio of the artist, a picture, and the artist’s latest CD, are a great way for PR people to get the word out about new acts, and being on the receiving end of their mass mailings makes every mail day kind of like Christmas at your grandparents’. You never get what you ask for, if you have that option at all, and most of the time what you do receive ends up being pushed into the back of a drawer– but getting presents is never a bad thing.
Joanne Juskus’ press pack arrived in my box a little less than a month ago, so I had more time than usual to check her out. Maybe that’s not a good thing…
Hailing from the town of my youth, the planned community of Columbia, Maryland (Go Waterloo Elementary GT program!), Joanne Juskus plays contemporary folk, the likes of which you can readily hear on the radio from such artists as Natalie Merchant or Kate Bush. Juskus is a songwriter, singer, and “accomplished pianist”– this quote from her press pack speaks the truth. She has an easy going, not overly complex but well executed style of playing that suggests many years of training.
In the vocal department, Juskus is no slouch either, although she doesn’t quite have the “unique voice” her press pack claims, shortly before launching into comparisons with female singers such as the aforementioned Bush, Joni Mitchell, and “the Celtic nuance of Sandy Denny.” The Mitchell comparison is a good one– both singers have high-flying, womanish voices, and Juskus’ songwriting does bear strong marks of Mitchell’s influence.
Juskus’ recently released self-titled debut CD didn’t particularly grab me at first—my mind drifted through the opening three songs, and then came track four, “Waters of March.” Here the studio sheen and synthesizers fall away, and the group opts for a quiet lullaby-like atmosphere.
Juskus’ vocals are breathy and close mic’d, a welcome change from her more expressive but generally generic intonations on most of the other album tracks.
The remaining songs on the CD are fairly hit or miss, sometimes rising above their occasionally smaltzy Top-40 backgrounds, sometimes not. Multi-instrumentalist Brad Allen is responsible for much of that background, playing everything from drums to guitar to keys– and though he’s undoubtedly a talented musician, it just seems like he tries to pack too much music into one song.
Juskus’ tunes range from above competent to good-great, but it’s really their overloaded nature on the recordings I found most troubling. Perhaps Juskus and her four-man live band Near Oblivion will open up the sound enough to let Juskus’ own talent shine through.
Since she has two shows in Charlottesville in the next week, I guess we’ll find out.

Joanne Juskus performs at Mountain View Grill, January 17. $5, 8:30pm, and then at Miller’s January 18. $4, 9pm.

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