When Vanessa Daou’s debut album Zipless: Songs From the Works of Erica Jong was first released in 1994, it garnered acclaim across the industry for its other-worldly production, sex-positive lyrics, and, of course, for Daou’s impressive vocal delivery. Time called it an exquisite album, Slant listed it among the 100 Best Albums of the ’90s, and even Rush’s Alex Lifeson commended its cross-genre blend. It’s since become a landmark album in electronic music, though to simply call it electronic music would be a disservice to the album’s intersectional approach. The album has become rather hard to find in the last few years, but thanks to a recent reissue campaign by DRKR Records and KID Recordings, Zipless is now available for CD and vinyl aficionados alike from Vanessa Daou’s Bandcamp page. The Second Disc was recently able to take a listen to the new vinyl reissue.
Zipless is a collection of Vanessa Daou’s musical interpretations of Erica Jong’s written work. In fact, it’s Jong who coined the term “zipless” in her book Fear of Flying. Jong’s 1973 work, is itself a significant piece of second-wave feminist literature – one that made waves for its blunt and honest representations of female sexuality. For Zipless, Daou put ten of Jong’s works to music. Engineering and producing the album was Peter Daou, one of Vanessa’s most frequent collaborators and, it turns out, the nephew of Erica Jong. Together with Dana Vlcek, Steve Neat and John Parthum, they created a compelling musical amalgam with which to reinforce the words, imbuing each with a sensuous combination of jazzy and soulful, chilled-out and empowered, smooth and danceable. The result is a blend of pop, house, acid jazz, and spoken word that received significant critical acclaim and chart action. In fact, “Sunday Afternoons” reached the top spot on Billboard‘s Dance Club Play chart, while the album’s lead single, “Near the Black Forest” received heavy airplay on VH1.
The album opens with “The Long Tunnel of Wanting You,” featuring a chilled-out dance track that incorporates jazzy piano chord stabs and a solo thats as dextrous as it is brief. Daou’s seductively hushed, nearly whispered vocal delivers lyrics that pay tribute to the anatomy of two lovers. The track fades out just as the groove gets to be hypnotic, welcoming the listener into a musical landscape wherein nothing is off-limits.
But the album isn’t purely sexual. In an interview, Daou explained what initially her to Jong’s work: “I was drawn immediately to the dualities of Erica’s poetry: the sense of longing mixed with loss, of surrender and abdication, desire and denial, of the combination of universality and intimacy of Erica’s language.” Indeed, her work addresses a wide range of conflict and desire that Daou delivers with conviction.
“Alcestis on the Poetry Circuit,” for example, explores the topic of servitude in relationships and in art. Like a rule book, Jong presents a list out how a woman “should be”: desensitized and self-abused until she “thinks herself a queen & yet a beggar.” If she’s talented, Jong writes, she must doubt herself to the point of weakness; if she’s a genius, her talent must cause her pain. The stern words is given a new life as a song with a dramatically recited vocal delivery against a grooving beat, syncopated keyboards that’s oddly danceable.
This balance between thoughtful, often stern words and infectiously danceable and hypnotic music is a fine line to balance, and Daou and the team of producers and engineers rise to the challenge to present the content in a compelling, accessible way. Take “Sunday Afternoons,” for example. Its eerie electronic chord progression, driving drum-and-bass, and otherworldly synth and keyboard textures are enough to draw the listener in. The sparse instrumental backing of “Autumn Perspective” works the same way, with a trance-like repetition drawing attention to Daou’s recitation. New vocal lines, synthesizer elements, and alternating drum patterns slowly build the song and provide subtle dynamic contrasts to a story of a couple making a home for themselves together in an old house, “finding the dirty ends of someone else’s life.”
“Near the Black Forest,” with lyrics about a woman with an obsession with clocks, is another danceable, jazz-inspired, ambient house track. It features a catchy refrain, making it a great choice for the album’s lead single. Halfway through, the groove subsides, leaving room for synth pads and free-sounding yet deliberate piano solo. “My Love Is Too Much,” meanwhile, features a repeated violin line and range of ambient synth pads and bells. Daou recites Jong’s poem about a man who is unable to love a woman of complexity: “You would rather have a girl / With simpler needs: / Lunch, sex, undemanding.” But the joke’s on him, as Daou vocalizes: “Oh my love / Those simple girls / With simple needs / Read my books too / They tell me they feel / The same as I do … They tell me I translate / Their mute, unspoken pain / Into the white light / Of language.”
Such has been the mission of the great feminist writer. And in giving these words a new space to exist – amid a beautiful blend of house, acid jazz, electronica, and pop – Daou’s Zipless brought Jong’s messages to a new audience. Twenty-five years on, it still captivates and is as relevant as ever. Thankfully, this hard-to-find gem of the CD era has finally found a home on vinyl and the ten remastered songs sound wonderful on the new pressing, which weighs in at 180 grams. Rounding out the package is a lyric sheet, download card, and an 11″x22″ poster of Zipless artwork elements.
While the Zipless reissue was originally announced as a Pledge Music project, stock has now moved to Vanessa Daou’s Bandcamp page, where listeners can purchase the LP and digital download editions. Also available is an expanded, deluxe digital collection that combines Zipless with nine contemporaneous remixes and alternate versions. The rest of Daou’s discography is available there, too, including the album Zipless Bootleg Rehearsal Tapes, which includes 15 rehearsal recordings of Zipless tracks. Fans are urged to act quickly, though, as supplies are limited!