The planet represented in the fourth installment of this year’s KCRW World Festival (headlined by Macy Gray) was one crazy, mixed-up place. It was a triple bill where at least two-thirds of the card worked at playing music that did not fit easily into any national pigeonhole, and a third that barely appeared to be in the gravitational pull of this or any other planet.
The borderless polyglot sounds of the Brazilian Girls opened the show on a sensual note. The New York-based quartet is something of a musical melting pot; the show opened with the seaside languor of “Lazy Lover” but quickly switched gears to the more aggressive, predatory night-town grind of “Jique” (from their second Verve Forecast album, “Talk to La Bomb,” but probably more familiar as the soundtrack to a recent BlackBerry ad). Bits of ska (the too easy joke of “Pussy”) and skittery electronica (“Sweatshop’s” East Village roundelay) edged their way into the shadowy grooves, but the majority of the quartet’s appeal flows from Sabina Sciubba, a multilingual siren in a form-fitting bodysuit who can tell you she’s trouble in six languages.
If Brazilian Girls is defined by Sciubba’s protean charms, Zap Mama is all about lead singer Marie Daulne’s unassailable authority. Belgian by way of the Congo, the singer can be earthy and sly, doing somersaults across the stage or asking members of the aud their names and then turning those names into song lyrics, but there’s a steely calm at her the center of her voice that gives her music’s pan-African grooves — leavened with touches of beat box and, in “Supermoon,” an elastic, “Walk on the Wild Side” lope — a brooding seriousness that can make her sound like a maternal Bob Marley.
Headliner Macy Gray lacked both Daulne’s seriousness and Sciubba’s seductiveness; in fact, the most prominent characteristic of her hourlong perf was laziness.
Gray still has the distinctive voice, as scratchy and warm as a wool sweater, that made her a multiplatinum star with 1999’s “On How Life Is,” but she no longer employs it with any power. She rarely raises it above a whisper, and her heavy-lidded phrasing flattened out the rhythms pumped out by her fine funk band.
Her one-hour perf (with no encore) was so uninspired that everyone who joined her onstage, from Natalie Cole (on the opener “Finally Made Me Happy”) to her two backing vocalists, outsang her, bringing more energy and spunk to the proceedings.
Spaced-out looking and pacing the stage like someone impatiently waiting for the show to end, Gray wasn’t helped by a set list that was programmed with little regard for momentum or emotional coherence, and filled with bits of business (a coffin following Gray offstage following the James M. Cain funk of “Strange Behavior,” and the by-now-tired cue cards being flashed, “Don’t Look Back” style, during “Oblivion”) that went nowhere.