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French connections
The NYC no wave of Lizzy Mercier Descloux

By any measure, this spring has been tough on rhythm. Along with the major loss of Ray Charles on June 10, we’ve also endured the passing of Coxone Dodd, dub "sound system" innovator and founder of Jamaica’s legendary Studio One, who died of a heart attack on May 7. Four days later, John Whitehead, whose recordings with songwriting partner Gene McFadden ("Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now") were overshadowed by the hits the pair wrote for the O’Jays, Archie Bell, and others, was shot outside his Philadelphia home in an apparent case of mistaken identity. And on May 18, towering post-bop drummer Elvin Jones, the engine behind John Coltrane’s classic1960-’66 quartet, passed away in New York after several months of declining health. A very different jazz innovator, soprano-saxophonist Steve Lacy, succumbed to cancer on June 4 in Boston. And Voidoids/Lou Reed guitarist Robert Quine was found dead, an apparent suicide, on June 5.

Although Charles and Jones have been the most eulogized of these artists, in the Phoenix and elsewhere, they all deserve every column inch and broadcast minute their deaths generate. But a less-celebrated figure ought to be remembered — and more important, heard — as well: Lizzy Mercier Descloux. The Paris-born singer and guitarist (and poet and painter) died, also of cancer, on the island of Corsica on April 20, at the age of 47. Even in France, she was not a household name, despite her 1984 chart hit "Mais où sont passées les gazelles," which was adapted from a South African song.

In the US, her work is even more easily overlooked, though she shuttled between continents from her late teens onward, forging close ties with New York’s punk underground. How close? A Descloux memorial was held at CBGB’s on May 22, and a candid message on Richard Hell’s personal Web site reveals that his novel Go Now was based on his romantic involvement with Descloux. Hell says little about her music, but it’s evident that she never meant to be a mere hanger-on. By 1978, she had formed the duo Rosa Yemen with DJ Barnes; the three tracks included on Ze Records’ recent N.Y. No Wave compilation (which I reviewed in the January 16 Phoenix) are skittery, casually structured bits of two-guitar minimalism that document the sheer will to make art more than they define a settled musical direction.

Reissued — also by Ze — in expanded form mere months before her death, Descloux’s first two full-lengths under her own name are just as restless but far more accomplished. The center of gravity on 1979’s Press Color is high-concept art funk akin to labelmate James White’s, but there’s also an effective disco reading of Charles Brown’s "Fire," a cover of the Mission Impossible theme, and the grim-humored "Tumour," a retrospectively chilling revamp of Peggy Lee’s "Fever." The range is even wider on the bonus tracks, which include the entire Rosa Yemen EP and two unreleased tape-collage experiments with Charlus de la Salle. The reissue ends with "Morning High," on which Descloux recites Rimbaud’s sonnet "Matinée d’ivresse," in tandem with Patti Smith’s English translation, over Eno-inspired backing from Bill Laswell and Oliver Ray.

The one constant element is Descloux’s voice; accent aside, it conveys the same odd mixture of playfulness and distress as Lora Logic’s. On 1981’s Mambo Nassau, which has been newly licensed from Dutch major label Philips, that voice is still front and center, but she uses it less to carry meaning (or even melody) than as a focal point for her band’s collective rhythmic energy. The rare decipherable phrase could be about anything: "Pick it up/There it is/It’s right in front of you!" More often, she interjects bright, wordless whoops into global-funk grooves heavily indebted to African pop and assembled at Nassau’s famed Compass Point studios (hence the title). On "Sports Spootnicks" and "Slipped Disc," you can almost hear the Bahamian sun eating away at layers of East Village grime.

Producer/keyboardist Wally Badarou, a frequent Sly & Robbie sideman, and inventive bassist Philippe Lemongne (well-known in French prog-rock circles) wrote much of Mambo Nassau, and they deserve considerable credit for its musical merits. They’re the drivers, but Descloux is the navigator: whoever else was along for the ride, the three-year journey from the angst of Rosa Yemen’s "Herpes Simplex" to the untrammeled joy of this album’s "Funky Stuff" was her own.

That journey continued over her three remaining albums, which have yet to be issued in the US. One for the Soul paired Brazilian musicians with Chet Baker material; another project — unrealized because of visa difficulties — involved combining players from Soweto and New Orleans. We can only hope that in the next world, the borders between genres and nations are as permeable as they were in Descloux’s cosmopolitan imagination.

Issue Date: June 25 - July 1, 2004
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