Press Color is, in almost every way, a summation and distillation of the musical and artistic climate of the late ‘70s.
Last week, some friends and I were debating about the best albums of certain decades. We tried to nail down the best of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but when it came to the ‘70s the conversation became impossible. What the re-release of Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s 1979 album offers is simply the best of what both the 1970s and Light in the Attic Records have to offer.
Since 2002, Seattle-based Light in the Attic has released records from legendary acts such as: Serge Gainsbourg, Lee Hazlewood, Kris Kristofferson, Roky Erickson, Rodríguez, Betty Davis, Thin Lizzy, Lewis and many others. The label, whose catalogue boasts a wide and eclectic mix of musicians, has always strived to reissue projects that were either under-appreciated or didn’t last the test of time.
It is no wonder, then, that Press Color would eventually resurface under Light in the Attic. The album is, in almost every way, a summation and distillation of the musical and artistic climate of the late ‘70s. You see a collaborative nature of the album created in Descloux’s friendships with ZE Records, featured guests such as Patti Smith and the wide-range of musical styles this album encompasses.
The record begins with a cover of Arthur Brown’s 1968 occult classic “Fire” in the style of Blondie’s “Rapture” or the all-girl Bronx disco/dance/post-punk funk band ESG. Psychedelic guitars and organs are traded for a sweeping disco rhythm section and Brown’s haunting vocals are replaced for Descloux’s soft inflections and playful melodies. “Fire” introduces us to the vainest musical movement of the ‘70s while giving us a glimpse into the album’s ultimate range. But there are two other covers not as well hidden as the first.
We get a version of Little Willie John’s sultry 1956 hit, “Fever” re-named and reworded into Descloux’s “Tumor.” The track retains the cool, low-key tempo and swaying rhythm but transforms it into a playful hint to Descloux’s French heritage; letting her confuse translations as a sort of act and gesture towards her transcontinental origins. There are also two covers of the classic “Mission Impossible” theme—one a more traditional cover and the other (“Mission Impossible 2.0”) having the feel of a Gang of Four track with syncopated, hi-hat heavy drums and trebly, upfront bass.
Aside from the playful covers, tracks range from art-pop drones to polyrhythmic post-punk pogo, spoken word to forward thinking dance tracks a la the Clash’s “This Is Radio Clash.” “Hard-Boiled Babe” is particularly amazing. It feels decades ahead of its time. Long before breakbeat and deep-house, this song has a down-tempo drum machine rhythm that wouldn’t feel at all out of place in the mid-’90s.
But the rest of the album feels like a defiant synthesis of art-pop and post punk, with just a little bit of irreverent, calculable noise thrown in. Tracks like “Nina Con Un Tercer Ojo,” “Decryptated,” “Herpes Simplex” and “Tso Xin Yu Xin” are short, minimalist expressions that feel inspired by anarcho-punk legends Crass in their heavy 4/4 beats and manic guitar plucking.
Almost in contrast, Press Color is filled with more straightforward tracks like “Torso Corso,” “Jim on the Move” and “Birdy Num-num.” But trying to really say any song of this album is a pop tune is pretty tough (except for some of the covers). What defines this album is its ability to stay undefined. Like so much of the music from the ‘70s, Press Color feels so innately grounded in a period of time, which is to say that it’s an album that can be used to show the best of what alternative and art music had to offer. If you need any more evidence, look at just the last and first tracks.
The deluxe re-issue features of three-minute spoken word piece featuring Patti Smith. You hear Smith’s voice reading some sort of poetry while Descloux almost whispers in her native French. A sweeping guitar powers through at the end and finishes the track with a distortion. It is truly an amazing piece, and again, feels far ahead of its time. But compare it to the first track—the cover of “Fire.” The two couldn’t be more different. It’s surprising to hear these two tracks on the same album, and I think that could be said about a lot of Press Color. It’s an album that disobeys labeling. It eschews all the ways late ‘70s post-punk or no wave (as she has been defined historically) is supposed to sound. The album’s beauty comes from its ability to contain multitudes.