U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited (4AD)
“Why Do I Lose My Voice When I Have Something to Say?” That’s the title of a musical interlude on the latest album by Meg Remy, a.k.a. U.S. Girls. It describes a situation unlikely to ever happen to this outspoken artist: she has a hell of a lot to say, and she wants to make sure you hear it.
To make sure that happens, Remy has made her most musically accomplished album to date, evolving from what was once a very solitary, homemade affair to a large, vibrant band whose energy was captured in a professional studio. The result? One of the slickest, catchiest pop songs here, “Pearly Gates,” is about being sexually violated by St. Peter in order to gain access to heaven.
Needless to say, there’s a lot to unpack in that song, including the refrain, “Give it up, you’re just some man’s daughter”—which references the sudden outrage some men declare publicly when confronted with Weinsteinian news: “As the father of daughters…” As if just being human wasn’t enough to be outraged by the fact that misogynist predators view women as merely chattel, whether or not those daughters are the progeny of men who claim to care about sexual violence. The rest of the album is no less unflinching.
Remy told Exclaim magazine, "Making [In a Poem Unlimited] around the time that [Trump] was nominated to be president, everything became so unreal that you couldn't even be scared; it felt like a glitch in the program, so it also felt like I was free to do what I want."
That she does. The opening track here, which encourages vengeance for victims (“Instill in them the fear that comes with being prey”), is titled “Velvet For Sale.” Everything about In a Poem Unlimited plays to the aphorism of a “fist in a velvet glove”: the more difficult the message, the more accessible the music—much of it here references late ’70s David Bowie, or even at times an art-damaged Madonna, with plenty of nods to the ’50s and ’60s pop of Motown and Phil Spector. That’s most true of “Rage of Plastics,” written by Fiver’s Simone Schmidt, which is about the infertility of a woman who works at an oil refinery, set to an eighth-note piano pulse 6/8 shuffle and a ripping sax solo from Andy Haas (of Martha and the Muffins fame). “Mad as Hell,” about disillusionment with Barack Obama’s deployment of drone warfare, is set to the same kind of modern disco heard on Arcade Fire’s Everything Now.
Meg Remy is an American expat living in Toronto, where she taps into that city’s creative fertility: much of the musical success of this record is due to her savvy choice of collaborators. She draws largely from psychedelic jam band the Cosmic Range, featuring multi-instrumentalists Matt “Doc” Dunn, Mike Smith, Brandon Valdivia (Lido Pimienta), Kieran Adams (Diana), Max Turnbull (Slim Twig) and more. Solo artists Basia Bulat, Jennifer Castle and Michael Rault all turn up in supporting roles. Members of her side project, the synth-y garage rock band Darlene Shrugg, also appear. Remy shares songwriting with some of her peers, and surrenders it entirely on two tracks here, including the rousing closer “Time,” but make no mistake: this is entirely her vision, from top to bottom.
In connecting musical threads from the past into a modern context, Remy is also underscoring that the abuse and the malaise she describes so vividly is timeless: some of these songs may appear to be ripped from current headlines, but there’s nothing new here—other than the fact that artists like Remy are shining lights into dark corners and asking, “What are we going to do to change?” (Feb. 23, Waterloo Record)
Stream: “Time,” “Rage of Plastics,” “Mad as Hell”