U.S. Girls ‘Half Free’ (4AD) LP released 25th September 2015
Beckoned to the label hotbed of deconstructive cerebral pop 4AD, the Illinois raised, Toronto relocated, polygenesis songstress Meg Remy continues to entrance with her latest U.S. Girls album Half Free. Transmogrifying the template evocation of Ronnie Spector and The Shirelles with a fresh perspective and penchant for glitter ball maladies, neon lit dub and glamorous scintillating bubblegum pop, Remy’s moiety of revisionary girl group backbeats and venerable candid highly unsettling laments address a myriad of issues, from disparity between the sexes to the growing pains of modern womanhood – cue the unsettling vignette ‘Telephone Play No.1’, which plays out as a phone call catch-up between siblings but then unnervingly reinforces a deep resentment on stereotype psychology.
Her most dazzling, hypnotically eclectic album yet, both thematically and musically, Half Free is essentially a highly sophisticated and gracefully slick pop triumph: On a parallel, alternative timeline this could have been (stay with me on this one) a Camille Paglia championed Madonna era masterpiece from the mid 80s; her veracious sensual heartache and woozy dream like escapism is certainly evoked at various times throughout the album. Madonna aside, Meg takes on the mantle of various female personalities and vamps, but often desexualizes and reduces their carnal allure to a sense of isolation and discomfort. Her cast of troubled personas this time around owes a debt to the characters of John Cassavetes and Michael Ondaatje, and to the broken down protagonist of a lost 70s plaintive disco classic.
Channeling the wallowing despair of Ronnie Spector, and loosely walking the line of the troubled Nora Bass from Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter novel, on the opening churning looped melodrama ‘Sororal Feelings’, Meg’s sisterly pleads of the broken wife yearningly progress through a Lee Hazelwood envisioned deep southern soundtrack: the strange fruit and methodology metaphorically replaced: “Going to hang myself. Hang myself from a family tree.” An emotional draining start, which grows on you with repeated plays, Sororal is followed up by the super-charged dub reggae hybrid ‘Damn That Valley’ – perhaps the most refreshing slice of on-message pop in 2015. Taking her cue from the acclaimed journalist Sebastian Junger’s Afghanistan front reportage War chronicles, Meg rages with a reverberating wall of sonic shrilling and grief as an imagined war widower riling against the futility and platitude sentiments of the government. Beating out an electro sound clash, part N.Y. City no wave of the early 80s, part Mikey Dread Jamaican dancehall, long time collaborator and Toronto producer Onakabazien takes it to the next level.
Already aired, Damn That Valley is the most colourfully vibrant of a trio of songs released since May in the run up towards the release of the LP. The second of these, ‘Woman’s Work’, closes the album. Extended from its more radio and video friendly version to a fading seven-minute plus requiem, the female gaze is sinisterly reproached by a Cindy Sherman posing façade and operatically Baroque gilded Moroder soundtrack. Amplifying the venerable atmospherics, Meg is joined by the siren sonic ethereal pitch of Ice Cream’s Amanda Grist – who can also be heard doubling-up on the Damn That Valley vocals – as they traverse an eerie veil of Catholic electro.
Released in more recent weeks, the last of this trio ‘Window Shades’ revives Gloria Ann Taylor’s original 70s unrequited disco ballad ‘Love Is A Hurting Thing’. Stumbled upon by Meg’s husband and DFA label signed artist Slim Twig (who contributes throughout the album); a touch of Madonna blusher and woozy glitter ball noir is added, whilst the universal theme is updated: apparently written after Meg watched the cod-autobiographical documentary Part Of Me, the meme circus spotlight on the life of Katie Perry that even with a soft coating of saccharine idolisation exposes the cracks and fatuous nature of celebratory.
Elsewhere on the album Meg appropriates the bubble gum glam of Bolan and the spikey punk beat of The Misfits on ‘Sed Knife’ (a minimal poem set to a bouncing backbeat, originally released as the B-side to 2012’s ‘Rosemary’). Whilst she offers an elegantly cool, misty oscillating sonorous bass-y air of mystique, – piqued by cold war jarred piano note suspense – clandestine variant on the spy thriller soundtrack with ‘New Age Thriller’: The actual battle it seems is between self-respect and male pressure. Red lipstick marks the collar of the churning, western guitar twanged, murky ‘Red Comes In Many Shades’, which itself borrows from the put-upon, downbeat beauty of Nancy Sinatra. Whether intentional or not, the song sounds like a slowed down version of New Age Thriller, and thematically dissects the struggles, and in this case, the betrayal of an affair.
Honing the darkness and plight of what was always celebrated as the innocent, teenage growing pains of adolescence with more gravitas, Meg’s robust themes swim amorphously through the dry-ice, crystal waves of the late 70s and 80s to produce a post modern pop triumph. Progressing from the basement tapes and reverberated Spector sonic loops of the past to her latest incarnation as the pining pop artist, Meg Remy’s production values are highly ambitious: her previous work a precursor series of experimental outings. Without a doubt Half Free is her best, most mature, meticulous and glorious sounding collection of songs yet.
Words: Dominic Valvona