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Lizzy Mercier Descloux - Zulu Rock / Best Off

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Artist: Lizzy Mercier Descloux

Album: Zulu Rock / Best Off

Label: Ze

Review date: May. 18, 2006

Less than a year after releasing an artsy, disco-bent debut, Lizzy Mercier Descloux left Manhattan for good, opting to record her next four albums in different parts of the world. The Paris-born Descloux never really showed a talent for stasis anyway. After leaving New York, her first stop was the open air of the Caribbean. With the help of Wally Badarou, Descloux achieved a positively exuberant sound by grafting African polyrhythms to American R&B and pop. The result was as distant from its predecessor as its location might indicate, and to her critics it was a certain improvement.

Descloux’s hunger for exotic music only intensified after Mambo Nassau’s success, and she decided to get closer to the source on her third album, Mais où Sont Passées les Gazelles, by recording in South Africa with local musicians. The album, which has just been reissued by Ze Records under the new title Zulu Rock, represents the pinnacle of Descloux’s achievement, and remains as likable as the day it was issued in 1984.

Like Paul Simon, who was also absorbing South African influences at the time, Descloux has been accused of shamelessly stamping her name on sounds she neither deserved nor earned. The similarities between Zulu Rock and Simon’s Graceland do bear this out to some degree, but either way, the music is such a revelation that it almost doesn’t matter.

South African music can be subdivided endlessly into genres like highlife, rumba, and juju; no matter, Descloux devoured them all. She put her touch on the tunes, naturally, but the music is unmistakably South African. The songs are led by melodic, popping basslines, pushed forward with insistent drumbeats and shifting guitar rhythms, and decorated with flourishes of brass and accordion. Major chords and up-tempo rhythms lend the songs a sort of escapist joy, the subtleties of which us Westerners barely possess the palette to describe. “Sounds like cruise ship music,” a friend tells me, with more than a hint of derision.

Descloux, who possesses a limited vocal range, relies more on rhythmic yelps and sheer enthusiasm to get her message across, which often goes no deeper than the intoxicating lyrics of “Queen of Overdub Kisses:” “I want to do it with you / Play by ear / Play by you.” For Descloux, it’s enough to just take it all in.

For her next album, Descloux unwittingly followed Paul Simon to Brazil for the jazzy One for the Soul. Best Off ,a recently released compilation of Descloux’s work on Ze Records, collects songs from this and her four other albums. Surprisingly though, the collection falls flat; perhaps her continental ADD just doesn’t translate. Jumping from New York to Nassau to South Africa and finally, Brazil, makes no sense in this context, and the song selection seems almost random. Perhaps, like the expanse of sky she so feverishly chased, Descloux is just too restless to bottle up.

By Mark Griffey

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