A new reissue of an idiosyncratic post-punk classic reminds us of the fragmented creative space that thrived in underground music in the late '70s.
In 1979, the year Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s debut album Press Color was released, popular and underground music were both going through their own inextricably linked revolutions. Mercier Descloux, in her perhaps small way, was part of one of those larger musical movements -- now called “post-punk”. It revealed shifting attitudes toward pop music (at the time, primarily disco), rock traditionalism (an adversity to anything that could be traced back to the id-based, macho roots of rock ‘n’ roll), and the influence of world cultures in Western art. Her debut, fittingly, was a free-spirited album of off-the-cuff experimentalism that embraced all of these qualities and more that might separate it from the stagnating realms of rock, punk and pop. The goal was to invent, to encourage novelty and shun habit. Primarily, Mercier Descloux and her contemporaries wanted to initiate change in the development of modern music toward a more fractured creative space. Over time, that goal was achieved.
Press Color is an album that revels confidently in its brash idiosyncrasies. Structure is of no concern: there are multiple instrumentals, covers and originals thrown together indiscriminately, and subsequent reissues have drastically reorganized the initial tracklist. Fittingly, Mercier Descloux’s compulsive variegation carries over to the record’s many seemingly incompatible styles: disco (“Fire”), reggae (“No Golden Throat”), a version of the Mission Impossible theme teased with surf rock guitar, etc.
Like many iconic singers of the era, Mercier Descloux’s voice is characterized by unusual tics and a healthy disregard for conventional technique, but her limited range also hides a surprising depth of tone and attitude. On “Fire” she’s sensual and suave, muddled and spontaneous on “No Golden Throat”, and playfully dark on “Torso Corso”. Her thick French accent mingles with abstract and ad-libbed lyrics, at times making it difficult to tell whether she’s speaking a foreign language or just spouting nonsensical gibberish. As stylistically erratic as Press Color gets, Mercier Descloux’s impulsive energy as a singer matches it beat for beat.
Most of the bonus tracks included in this reissue -- some sourced from the 1978 live EP Rosa Yemen -- align with a forgotten, more subdued flavor of post-punk popularized by Young Marble Giants and their seminal 1980 album Colossal Youth: jangle guitars, minimal or no percussion, distant vocals and eerily empty arrangements. Mercier Descloux seems more prone to playful noodling in these spare cuts, working mostly without the world music grooves and pop music flair of the album’s most memorable tracks.
Songs like “Decrypted” and “Herpes Simplex” (originally from Rosa Yemen) embody the radical avant-garde values of the burgeoning no wave movement, and rarities “Birdy Num-num”, “Hard Boiled Babe”, and the Patti Smith-featured “Morning High” (all of which also appear on the 2003 reissue of Press Color) further expand the album’s vast palette with early but sophisticated electronic dance techniques, most notably drum machine beats and vocal sampling. These extras confirm Mercier Descloux’s dedication to state-of-the-art musical technologies and styles -- a defining characteristic of the best post-punk artists -- and makes the case that, if there were any justice in the canon of popular music, she would have built up a far greater following in the decades since these groundbreaking songs were originally issued.
Of course, for those who already know, Press Color is recognized as a quintessential record of the post-punk era, ahead of its time not just in terms of its compositions and performances but also its attitude and approach. It’s one of the firmest bridges between the subversive energy of early punk and its cerebral, artistic offshoot genres that would go on to become new wave, college rock and ‘80s pop, thus helping define essentially all popular music since. Mercier Descloux as a figure within the movement may not exist in the realms of early instigators like John Lydon and Public Image Ltd. or lasting iconic forces like Siouxsie Sioux, but Press Color is still a lightning rod for the movement’s wildly diverse ideologies, styles and ambitions. Thanks to its innumerable idiosyncrasies, Press Color remains vital and fresh, but also woefully under-appreciated. It’s a relic of musical evolution and innovation that deserves reverence today for its inability to stand still or allow for classification.