Lizzy Mercier Descloux: Mambo Nassau / Zulu Rock / One For the Soul / Suspense
These post-Press Color records from Descloux show her as a world traveler, recording each record in a different location and genre-hopping in her music at every turn.
Lizzy Mercier Descloux's work is deeply tied to place. Her first record, Press Color (reissued last year), played on disco, punk, and No Wave movements surrounding the French performer in New York. Her next four records, which comprise the rest of her solo discography, now follow Press Color as another batch of solid reissues from the Light in the Attic label. They show Descloux the world traveler, recording each of these records in a different location and genre-hopping in her music at every turn.
1981's Mambo Nassau has all the nervy energy of Press Color, but it takes that charge in a slightly different direction. There's still plenty of the busted-up disco leanings to be found on the record, buried deep in "Sports Spootnicks" and in her cover of Kool and the Gang's "Funky Stuff", but the album also moves into other genres, giving Descloux a chance to cut up some new sounds. The album was recorded in the Bahamas at Compass Point Studios, with her long-time collaborator/manager/occasional partner Michel Esteban, some new players including keyboardist Wally Baradou, and engineer Steve Stanley. Descloux and company recorded the album while Grace Jones and Tom Tom Club were recording in the next studio over. The sense of overwhelming creativity and energy of the moment is clear on the record. Descloux still jumps through sounds, from the funk and jazz accents of "Les Baisers D'Amants" to the on-its-head reggae and punk tastes of "Slipped Disc". She certainly built on Caribbean sounds, especially with Baradou's brilliant, largely improvised contributions ("Room Mate") and built towards the African music she's explore on her next record Zulu Rock ("Payola", bonus track "Mister Soweto"). She also dabbled in some odd tangents, especially the quick, throwaway oompa track "Milk Sheik". Overall, Mambo Nassau is an odd yet infectious record. It shows its scuffed edges at every turn, yet it has all the defiant, singular energy of Press Color. The bonus tracks here show how far she pushed herself, on the excellent "Mister Soweto" but also the hazier, moodier tracks like "Corpo Molli Pau Duro".
All this dedication to place and exploration of new musical styles led Descloux to 1984's Zulu Rock. Coupled with Press Color and Mambo Nassau, this record completes a fascinating trio of records. Descloux, long fascinated with going to and recording in Africa, made this record in Apartheid South Africa. Once again, she brought her own aesthetic to a new set of sounds. Zulu Rock also did something its predecessor didn't: it produced a hit. "Mais Ou Sont Passees Les Gazelles?" combined Descloux's charming vocals with music from Obed Ngobeni and the Kurhula Sisters' song "Ku Hluvukile Eka 'Zete'". That original track was partially written by local arranger Peter Moticoe, who would help Descloux and Michel with the record. It would be easy to see songs like "Gazelles?" or "Abyssinia" or "Wakwazulu Kwzizulu Rock" as mere appropriations of sound, a white performer dabbling in traditions they weren't previously a part of. But there's such a sense of discovery on Zulu Rock that Descloux sounds more like she's honoring this music than she is taking it for herself. Her zealous vocals sounds like an irresistible response to the music's thumping call. It's an album that sounds so self-assured because it always sounds curious. The bonus tracks offer French-language versions of these songs, which doesn't add much except to hear a different, no-less-potent example of Descloux's personality on this album.
If these first two albums find Descloux moving into new environments and thriving effortlessly through sheer fascination in new music, the last two albums of her career -- One For the Soul and Suspense -- feel a bit more labored over. Descloux went to Brazil to make this record, and it is best known for including contributions from Chet Baker. The back and forth between the two can be infections, especially on "Fog Horn Blues", and the album contains a few moments of frantic pop sweetness. "God Spell Me Wrong" is as catchy a song as Descloux ever made, and "Women Don't Like Me" is like some bizarre, twisted-into-knots "Walkin' on Sunshine". The usual edge in Descloux's work is sanded down a bit on this record, which isn't always a bad thing. But where the previous records feel like they hopped around with purpose, this one sometimes feels like its stomping in place. A version of "My Funny Valentine" falls flat and feels strangely middle of the road. "Simply Beautiful" shoots for a funky blues vibe, but ends up in saccharin pop territory instead. Included here is a version of "Let's Get It On" that suggests that -- on this album -- Descloux's once frenetic curiosity had hit a wall. The album is solid, but it also feels like a plateau.
One For the Soul didn't do well and signaled a few changes, including a split with Michel Esteban. 1988's Suspense, Descloux's last record, was made in London and without her normal collaborators. It would be the first chance for Descloux to grab her own production credits, which is curious hearing the record. By and large, her far-flung influences fall by the wayside. There's maybe a hint of her time in Africa in "Cape Desire" and "Once Upon a Time Out", but mostly we get straightforward bombastic pop. Descloux's conventional mode is still relatively unconventional, so the piano balladry of "The Long Goodbye" still packs a curious punch while "L'Heure "Bleue" is the most playful, effortless turn on the record. Suspense is the one record in this set with bonus tracks that suggest there was a better record to be made. Its pop sensibilities work, but they don't feel as forward-thinking as the first trio of albums. Yet two versions of "Calypso Moguls" in this version find that spark we expect from Descloux and, in fact, the dub version might make you wonder why there isn't a full dub collection of Descloux's work.
Over her five-album career, Descloux travelled all over the world and her musical scope often broadened at every turn. You'd be hard pressed to find a more unique, interesting, and arresting first three records in a career than Descloux's initial trio of records. But even if the next two records didn't quite match up, these reissues suggest she is the kind of artist whose work should be taken as a whole, where songs should be studied not just in the context of one record, but in the context of an entire career. Listening to Descloux search her way through sounds on these records, the curiosity becomes infectious. You the listener go looking for the details, sifting through the songs for the disconnect bits Descloux conjured together and made shine. This music is alchemical.