For years Vanessa Daou has been creating a brand of music that not only explores all facets of the sensual but dares listeners to indulge in the more private reaches of their sexual fantasies. Daou’s music came to prominence when she released her premiere solo album Zipless, an overtly steamy brew of eroto-beats and beatnik jazz all set to the yearning eroticism of Erica Jong’s poetry. That album was followed up with other efforts that exercised her creative muscles sonically, from the blue-moon-swoon of Slow to Burn and the techno-fairytales of Plutonium Glow to the jazz-psychedelica of Dear John Coltrane. Whatever the project, Daou always put forth her passion for poetry, never allowing it a secondary standing to the music at hand.
On her sixth studio release, the self-produced Joe Sent Me, the songstress attempts to explore the nuances of language and poetry, building the sonic structures around vocal collages of poems, phrasings and stream-of-consciousness thoughts that all refer to the compositions of love, both destroyed and renewed. Joe Sent Me is also Daou’s most musically adventurous effort yet, employing the use of guitar and other live instruments such as brush wires, upright bass and brass.
Opening with a menacing scrape of guitars, “Manifesto”, the album’s first track, gives way to a robust, near-hip-hop beat under the support of a rumbling bassline. The temperature of both exhilaration and desire rises right around the time Daou sings, “You’re a sexy gun,” during the very moment a high-hat kicks in. The vocals are buried deep in the mix and give the impression that they were recorded under a suffocating heap of blankets, amplifying the sense of claustrophobia inherent in the song. Meanwhile, the electronicized cabaret-stomp of “Black and White” unfurls in a silver spray of ghostly piano licks and burlesque horns. In addition to being the album’s most accessible track, it also features some of the most inspired lyrics Daou has ever penned.
In many ways the album is almost like a cumulous cloud personified. The album starts out in full-bodied pillows of rhythm and sound before slowly fading out into a vapour of sonic air. The impression one gets when listening from start to finish is rather lovely. Daou’s otherworldly headspace is so compellingly dreamlike, it’s inescapable. Yet we never lose sight of the emotions on display. “Consequences”, an exercise in decadence and groove, draws the listener in with a tale of a possible rendezvous, which may or may never happen. The vocals, wafting like kettle-steam, coil like lace over the sensuous-slink of some heavy R&B. The spaced-out throb of “Hurricanes” pulses with slippery rhythms and the percussion of lively handclaps, turning in hypnotic circles. Here, the emotion, caught in the fragmentation of the lyrics, centers on the idea of repressed memory, rapidly being pulled to the surface. Amidst the scattershot stanzas, all the nuances of pain and love are perfectly captured.
By the time Joe Sent Me reaches its halfway mark, Daou coolly slides into a far more muted territory of sound, with the atmospherics pooling in the depths of the album’s sonic well. At the heart of the disc lies two of the album’s most curious numbers: the psychedelic strawberry-swirl of the short and supremely sweet “True” and the unnervingly chilly and mysterious “The Hook”, both of which introduce the listener to Daou’s new and welcome flirtations with the guitar. The album at this point also delves into the deeper reaches of old-world jazz, evoking images of pin-striped suits, despondent nightclub singers and 2 a.m. scallywag drunks, clinging to the back walls of derelict buildings.
“Save Yourself”, a provocatively elegiac number, beautifully encapsulates the romance of despair, bringing to mind images of vintage film posters plastered to peeling walls, strewn comic books and worn-out vinyl record albums, skipping and cracking their rhythms into the night. Here, Daou paints the portrait of a lonely, young man, peering out the bare windows of some Lower East village flat, garishly lit by the flickering neon signs outside. In the distance we can hear the sampled clatter of some tinny percussion resounding like faraway traffic.
The jazz becomes full-on on “Once in a While”; a hazy sax winding its way through a lazy, elegant groove, a druggy Rhodes piano and the sly modulations of a few keyboard licks. All the while, the track is kept warmed over by the hushed coos of Daou’s ether-like voice.
And when the album finally winds down to a close, signing off with “Heart of Wax” and a stirring reprise of “The Hook”, we are left with the sense of being on the end of a deliciously cruel parting shot. It’s hard to tell whether the silk and satin are simply veils for Daou’s many inner demons or if she is just winking through her pain. But her kind of pain hurts real good and the final slap in the face feels more like a warm, fresh kiss.