Iris DeMent, "The Trackless Woods" (Flariella Records). "The Trackless Woods" is the product of a butterfly-effect series of events involving the exquisite singer Iris DeMent, a borrowed book from a friend and a first encounter with the work of 20th century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. DeMent was so taken with the late poet's on-page voice that she adapted 18 of Akhmatova's poems into songs.
An often breathtaking collection, "The Trackless Woods" shimmers with DeMent's piano melodies, an occasional 12-string acoustic guitar strum (courtesy of Leo Kottke), structures as naturally sturdy as evergreens and Dement's expansive voice. That it was recorded in DeMent's Iowa City, Iowa, house seems somehow fitting, as do the harmonies and musical accents of area peers Greg Brown, his daughter Pieta Brown and guitarist Bo Ramsey, among others.
The expertly crafted lines to "And This You Call Work" revel in artistic indiscretion — "Not feeling one qualm of conscience/ I take things from left and right/ Life is sly but I take something from it/ And all from the stillness of the night." The comedically grim "The Last Toast" has the texture of a Hank Williams weeper and runs deep with spiritual twang: "I drink to the house, already destroyed/ And my whole life, too awful to tell" sings DeMent, accompanying herself with sparse piano chords. She drinks "to eyes with deadly cold imbued, to the lips that betrayed me with a lie," before ending with a devastating toast: "To the world for being crude and rude/ To God who didn't save us, or try."
Lizzy Mercier Descloux, "Press Color" (Light in the Attic). The 1979 debut album by the late poet, artist and musician Descloux jumps and pops with sparse post-disco energy. A French expat living in New York and running with Patti Smith and Richard Hell during the CBGB years, Descloux was hardly as famous, but her early work still sounds fresh. Originally issued on the ZE Records imprint, the tones on "Press Color" fit in with the label's beat-heavy roster, which during its '70s and '80s prime included forward-thinking pop experimenters including Suicide, Kid Creole & the Coconuts, Was (Not Was) and the Waitresses.
Despite her infectious work, Descloux is rarely cited as an influence. As newly reissued by Light in the Attic, "Press Color" offers a solid argument for renewed appraisal. The 18 tracks teem with late 1970s Lower East Side energy, delivering minimal dance songs similar in spirit to post-punk bands the Slits, the Raincoats and Liliput. That's especially evident on "Aya Mood," a rhythm-heavy instrumental dotted with guitar plucks, keyboard plonks and intermittent clang of cowbell. The playful "No Golden Throat" thrives on a slight reggae beat, a cluster of mumbling Frenchmen and Descloux muttering "I never have a golden throat" along with the rhythms.
She speaks the truth. Descloux doesn't so much sing as bark through most of "Jim on the Move," and "Birdy Num-num" is barely a song at all. But each is distinctively beguiling, and all these angles and jerky beats combine to create a complete portrait.