LP REVIEW
Dominic Valvona




U.S. Girls  ‘Heavy Light’
(4AD)  LP/6th March 2020


Marking a decade in a recording career that extends just beyond that, Meg Remy as the ambiguous U.S. Girls has progressed from bedroom diy-style 60s bleeding hearts girl group tape-loops to ever more sophisticated femme fatale politicized boogie, disco and funk. From performing as a, more or less, solitary figure from 2008 until she signed on in 2015 to 4AD, Meg has not only expanded her musical horizons and production techniques but also cast of collaborators: the last two albums for the much-mythologized indie label have included a full-on contorting live band, made up of Meg’s oft musical foil and partner the maverick guitar-slinging Maximilian Turnball (under his nom de plume of Slim Twig) and a host of Toronto talent; many of whom perform together as the multi-limbed collective Cosmic Range.

 

In (re)cycle mode Meg’s latest thematic cerebral pop opus, Heavy Light, is full of reflections and retrospection, not just on duality but hindsight. The seventh LP proper even features a trio of reworked recordings from the back catalogue; songs that chime with and make a connection to those very same themes, as Meg turns away (to a point) from her previous, almost, removed character sketches to gaze inward and take stock: going back even to recollections of childhood experiences. The first of this trio and a recent single ’Overtime’ first appeared on the 2013 Free Advice Column EP. Missing its lo fi Ronettes chimes, replaced with a more up-tempo gyrating workout of withering, cheated heart sassy funk, the refreshed Overtime now features a cameo pined saxophone requiem solo from Bruce Springsteen’s current E Street Band member Jake Clemons: his wane and whining contortions in parallel with the Linda Sharrock like pained wails. An annoyed song of deceit, the title an allusion to a partner drinking away his extra pay in overtime, is pretty much a universal and timeless theme given an uncomfortable twist: the protagonist laying six feet deep in the soil.

The second song to be lifted from its original time, ‘State House (It’s A Man’s World)’, first featured on the 2011 LP U.S. Girls On KRAAK. Given a little pep, crisper production too, the 2020 version keeps the backbeat but adds a choral quality of descending voices – on what sounds like a protest sway rather than march – and one of the album’s most featured backing instruments, the marimba. The lilted undulating sparkle and trickling marimba is interesting, as Meg has decided to record this latest album a little differently to the last; using a live band but with less augmenting beats and synthesized effects, to give it a different feel entirely to In A Poem Unlimited. And so it has a more natural less post-produced sound: “un-automated”, as the PR spill calls it. Though many of the same musicians from that previous LP remain, and Meg has brought in dance producer and remixing luminary Rick Morel (Pet Shop Boys, Cyndi Lauper, Yoko Ono), the instrumentation is more classical, chamber and symphonic – timpani, strings, double bass, balladry melodramatic piano, hand drums and percussion.

Album closer, ‘Red Ford Radio’, is the final track of the three revisions; having first appeared on Meg’s second LP, 2010’s grainy and discordant Go Grey. The lumbered slow-steamed haunting clang of the original remains, if slightly cleaner, and the revolving repetitive vocal loop of “I can’t breathe in this red ford anymore, I’d do anything to get out, get out” is intact, but lifted from the swampy mono gauze so that you can now hear the increasingly panicked mantra and the menacing bounced beats of an oil drum that allude to something far darker.






Heavy Light is as much about the vocals as the instrumentation and production, as Meg works with a host of singers to create a jubilation of gospel, soulful and theatre production chorus voices. Meg’s host of harmonious singers, conducted by the multi-talented Toronto stalwart and motivator Kitty Uranowski, sound like Bowie’s Philly-inspired plastic soul troupe on the weaponised Plastic Ono Band go disco swirled boogie, with Anita Baker in tow, ‘4 American Dollars’, and impassionedly sorrowful on the Mick Ronson tickles the ivories stage-y ballad to the complex notions of consent, ‘IOU’. This chorus not only sings with aria like ascendance but also lends it to the sound-art like collages that break-up the album’s collection of songs. Overlapping individual voices recollect their own unique anecdotes in a number of thematic vignettes, the question being posed through the track titles (‘Advice To Teenage Self’, ‘The Most Hurtful Thing’, ‘The Color Of Your Childhood Room’), with answers both cathartic and bland.

Taking its title cue from the Franz Kafka aphorism “A faith like an axe. As heavy as light”, this album takes both a wry and revisionist look at the past. The contrast of experiences themed ‘Woodstock ‘99’ – itself, a perhaps ill-advised festival cashing in on it’s own mythologized past; generation X attempting in some way to own a piece of the boomers history – even lifts lines from Jimmy Webbs classical pop breakup song, ‘MacArthur Park’: “Someone left the cake out in the rain, I don’t think that I can take it, ‘Cause it took so long to bake it. And I’ll never have that recipe again.” Written – I’m assured – about Webb’s breakup with Susan Ronstadt, turned down initially by The Association, it was Richard Harris who first made it a hit, but its Donna Summers version which seems to have inspired this vague transmogrification – that and a piece of Springsteen, The Boomtown Rats and Bowie’s piano moments on Hunky Dory. Almost with one eye winking, Meg’s impassioned sadness denotes a slight melodramatic indulgence on a song that has some really good lines about revising expectations and relationships with divided loyalties. ‘The Quiver To The Bomb’ goes much further back: four billion years in fact, to the dawn of womankind on a withering repetitive LCD Soundsystem piano drama.

Talking of borrowing, the brushed jazzy stagey, timpani rolled ‘Born To Lose’ has echoes of the sort of glass-y marimba and vibraphone chimes you’d hear on a Modern Jazz Quartet record. Those effective vibes, given a Latin makeover, can be heard again on the tropical, even Tango-esque, sauntering South American Spanish pop song ‘And Yet it Moves/Y Se Mueve’.






Personally though, it’s the beautifully conveyed and dreamy lulled ‘Denise, Don’t Wait’ and the already mentioned liquid funk soulful ‘4 American Dollars’ that I’m most endeared to. The former has that hanging on the end of a call that never comes, the expectant longing of a 60s girl-group heart breaker feel, skewered and reset in the now as a minor symphonic ballad. The latter shows off those over layered harmonies on a resigned polemic rile against the money men and the systematic failure of neoliberalism’s skewered capitalism- though I’d argue that a new elite of tech evangelists is a major driver of the inequality gap; those tech giants so-called altruistic virtues don’t wash as they hold onto ever greater reservoirs of capital and cash, usually offshore, instead of investing and spending in the economy at large: the drip down effect always an unsafe claim of multiple governments, even less effective when the rich don’t offer up even the most measly of crumbs.

 

Meg Remy remains one of the most consistent, (re)inventive and important pop artists and voices of the last decade. This, now, trio of 4AD records marks an unbroken run of assured quality; her finest work so far. No one quite politicizes disco, boogie and pop like it. No one sounds quite like her at the moment: not even close. There’s a lot of pain, a lot of hurt, and a lot of revising on Heavy Light as Meg holds up a mirror to both our conscious and unconscious biases, willing to root about in the grey areas and contradictions. Yet there is a sign of hope, a celebration of diversity –not in the achingly virtuous sense –, through the inclusion of eclectic voices and collaborators. U.S. Girls is not an expanded solo project but a hub, an all-welcoming activist umbrella that happens to produce some of the grooviest and most brilliant pop. I really do hope that I’m going to be marking Meg’s next decade in 2030!




Related posts from the Archives:

Half Free LP Review

In A Poem Unlimited Review

U.S. Girls Live Report



The Monolith Cocktail Is Now On Ko-Fi

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.

Album Review
Dominic Valvona




Owen Tromans ‘Between Stones’
(Sacred Geometry) 11th October 2019


In the spirit of maverick adventure, Hampshire-based singer-songwriter Owen Tromans walks a similar path to the arch druid of counterculture and psychogeography traversing, Julian Cope. The co-founder of the most informative sonic accompanied rambling fanzine guide, Weird Walks, Tromans (and his co-authors) circumnavigates the hidden British landscape of run-down flat roof pubs whilst waxing lyrical about the fantasy role-play meets Black Metal flowering of the Dungeon synth scene, and the more well-known traipsed chalk pits and megalith landmarks.

The soundtrack is important, both as an enriching experience and communicative tool. And on Between Stones the soundtrack could be said to be a surprising one. Ambling certainly; wandering this sceptered Isle imbued typography with all the ancient lore it entails, yet far from held-down to the British sound, Tromans actually channels a English pen pal version of R.E.M. and the great expansive outdoor epic trudge of Simon Bonney on the album’s hard-won stirring opus ‘Grimcross’: Imagine an 80s American college radio John Barleycorn. There’s even a touch of a mellower Pixies and early Dinosaur Jnr. on the grunge-y ‘Vague Summer’, and hints of Mick Harvey throughout the rest of the album.

It’s not just musically, but also the album’s mythology and fantastical themes that reach beyond these shores. Between The Stones entwines both episodes (real and imaginary) from Greek and German history into a rich green tableau. The protagonist in the former, a lamentable questioning soldier on the shores of Troy, attempts to make sense of the woes of that infamous war whilst communing with Zeus on the subtle organ-bathed ‘A Dialogue’, the latter, explores the fact and fiction behind the Disney castle eccentric Bavarian King, Ludwig II, on the plaintive Neil Young-esque ‘Burying The Moon King’. Perhaps only ever immortalized before by the Munich acid-rock gods Amon Düül II in a suite of songs from their Germanic conceptual epic, Made In Germany, the “mad” fantastical Ludwig may or may not have met his demise on Lake Starnberg at the hands of nebulas intrigue and the encroaching behavior of a unified German authority – Ludwig’s own ministers conspired to have him sanctioned at one point. Troy of course plays well in the lyrical alternative history of Britain; through a convoluted suspension of belief historiography, via the pen of many atavistic chroniclers (including Geoffrey of Monmouth), the fleeing survivors of that legendary city and war have been linked to the founding of both Rome, through their champion Aeneas, and Britain, through his descendant Brutus.

Beautifully conveyed throughout with subtle Baroque-psych chamber strings and a country falsetto, Tromans follows the desire lines, hill forts and undulating well-travail(ed) pathways on a most ruminating magical songbook; a thoughtful and poetic accompaniment that goes hand-in-hand with those “weird” and wonderful walks.




ALBUM REVIEW
Words: Andrew C. Kidd




Park Jiha ‘Philos’
(tak:til) 14th June 2019


Following her universally applauded debut album, Communion, Park Jiha has chosen Philos – from Greek, plural: loving, fond of, tending to – as the title for her latest release on Glitterbeat‘s sub-label, tak:til.

It has been described as an “evocation of her love for time, space and sound”. This is certainly evidenced in the multi-instrumental and baleful opener, ‘Arrival’, which consists of simple, metronomic strums and reedy high notes that lace around each other in ominous prismaticism. The piri, a double-reed bamboo flute played by Park, features heavily in this piece, as it does later during the album’s title track.

‘Thunder Shower’ is counterpoint and pacey. It also polyrhythmically balanced: an illusionary allargando (illusionary because the time-signature remains the same) offsets the urgency of the first third and peters out to the sounds of gentle rain before the original yanggeum-played motif resurfaces. It is a clever and rather effective musical metaphor.

The metallic yanggeum, a hammered dulcimer, reappears on ‘Walker’: In Seoul’. This track is played at a strolling pace and blends Park’s steely and melodic instrumentation with more abstract field recordings. I listened to this whilst reading a Hwang Sok-yong novel and it served as the perfect musical accompaniment to the piercing realism of his Seoul-dwelling protagonist. Similarly with the tuneful ‘When I Think Of Her’, where the yanggeum and saenghwang (mouth organ) elegantly dovetail, I am taken to a greeny, open space in a city flanked by buildings that arrow up towards the light blue.

The album departs from the instrumental during the track, ‘Easy’, which features the breezy and philosophical (or, rather, extrajudicial) spoken word of the Lebanese poet, Dima El Sayed. The upper notes intensify and push the vocals to a dizzying and distorting conclusion. ‘Pause’ follows and offers the listener a momentary armistice after the rallying call of ‘El Sayed’; the familiar but distant sounds of static and microphonic noise are point’s d’appui in an otherwise transcendental world of intangible sounds. This hypnotism is also evident on the final track, ‘On Water’, as the piri melody and xylophonic bells glint gently in the eventide.

There is an eloquent passage in the album notes which describes Philos as “[looking] to the future whilst continuing to converse with a rich instrumental language from the past”. This admixture of traditional Korean and Western instrumentation, coupled with compositions that lean towards the ambient and neoclassical, transmute Park’s experiences of a world awash with changing tides, transitory weather and ever-expanding cities into something that is indefinably atemporal.










Album Review / Dominic Valvona





Deerhunter  ‘Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?’
(4AD)  January 18th 2019


Loaded with despondent query and concept-fueled reference points (both in the literature and geographical senses), Deerhunter’s latest nuanced road trip across a ruined divided landscape poses many open-ended and visceral questions: And doesn’t exactly answer them.

As the current instability (take your pick: Brexit, Trump, Putin, rise of right wing populism in Europe and South America…. the list goes on and on) across the globe keeps Bradford Cox awake at night, the frontman’s pen scribbles away at a fair old rate in anxious irritation at the imposing chaos, on the band’s latest album for 4AD: The songwriting, it must be said, more honed and (daresay) melodically accessible than ever.

Making sense of the miasma, sending back woozy postcards from the languid ‘slipstream’ and hazily cooing eulogies to a constant theme of loss and a poisoning of the well of human kindness, Deerhunter repeatedly yearn like they did on their previous cerebral triumph, Fading Frontier, about the fading away of everything they hold dear. That album mined a similar discourse of disappearing humility, and musically captured, with an equally assuage tactile brilliance, the prevailing mood of the times through a steady daze of synthesized and melodious jingle-jangly troubadour indie pop.

Though proclaiming that ‘nostalgia is toxic’ in the sub-headed description of the surprisingly Bolan glam hued, cynical ‘Futurism’, Deerhunter’s penchant for reinvention never truly breaks free from the shackles of the past. Woozy elements abound of Bowie and Eno’s partnership on Low and Heroes, a languid John Lennon and The Plastic Ono Band, the Tubeway Army and, weirdly, a more credible Starsailor. Aiming to circumnavigate familiarity and a link to rock’s back pages, they discard separate amplifier setups to plug directly into the mixing desk. The results of which, played out over a flattish drumming backbeat, airy vaporous synthesizer sculpting build-ups, nuzzled suffused saxophone, bobbing undulated marimba, gentle romantic piano flourishes and pizzicato strings, often subdues the guitar sound entirely, which is light on lead but heavy on the acoustic rhythm.





Adding an aura of lilted and dreamy idiosyncrasy, cult Welsh experimentalist Cate Le Bon makes up part of the extended production and guest appearance crew. Lining up alongside long-term Deerhunter producer Ben H. Allen III, plus Ben Etter and the band themselves, Cate’s qualitative musical eccentricities add some sparkle and strange off-kilter ethereal wooing to the overall sound. You can hear her subtle Baroque harpsichord playing on the album’s first single, ‘Death In Midsummer’ – a slow unfurled highlight that despite its melodious warm quality sets out on an elegiac walkabout, inspired in part by a macabre photograph from the Russian Revolution -, and sad aerial harmony on the somber Heroes LP imbued ‘Tarnung’ – subtitled notes allude to a ‘walk through Europe in the rain’.

Not only produced by a number of collaborators, the tracks themselves were recorded in a number of inspired, prompted towns throughout the southern hemisphere of the USA; from Cox’s attic in Atlanta to the Seahorse Sound Studio in L.A. and a couple of locations in Texas. Among these, the poignant Marfa, Texas setting of the fated last film performance of James Dean, Giant. That last summer of 1955, before Dean tragically crashed his somewhat untamable sports car just months later in September of that same year, is played out in the tropical marimba and heavenly allured synthesized buoyant ‘Plains’. As with most of the songs on this album, the bubbly but languid swoozy swansong to Dean draws vague analogies to the fate of change. Cox doesn’t so much implore us to break from the past and fondness for what may have never existed, as gently and with tactile restraint, offers direction: swooning at one point to follow him through “the golden void”.

However, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is an elegy of remembrance to those that have been left behind in the pursuit of progress too. Cox even chooses to swim against the tide of these ennui attention-span self-absorbed times by penning and playing more cerebral, nuanced and subtly experimental music in the face of instant gratification and validation – the ‘eternally jetlagged’ visage of the Tron and Blade Runner-esque, glistening ‘Détournement’, is an uneasy strange hallucinatory vision of that future-present symbiosis.

Billed, in part, as an unpredictable sci-fi album about the present, WHEAD? offers a sensibility and melodious weary, clipped amorphous survey of a disappearing humanity, on the verge of a Cormac McCarthy dystopia. Yet it sounds, mostly, brilliant, personal and at times languidly beautiful.



Dominic Valvona (founder/editor/chief instigator of the Monolith Cocktail)

LP Review: Words: Gianluigi Marsibilio 



Ty Segall & White Fence ‘Joy’ (Drag City)

Disorder and progress. Joy is an album that embraces Ty Segall‘s psychedelia and White Fence’s potency within the enhanced framework of short and hard tracks. Songs that seem to test a space rocket, launch tests on a poetic platform, finding a peak of fleeting delirium.

Intentions are fully understood in songs such as ‘Body Behavior’, or, where those contrasts emerge between the song form and the small textual pearls that are drawn.

The storytelling of this work is strongly linked to productions like DRINKS or the Body/Head. The structure and thoughts of these pieces is inspired by bands like Palberta, which in the abstract research and in the fast songs, enhance their skills.

“Everyone makes grammar mistake”, Joy wants to wallow in these mistakes: teasingly. In a song that repeats ‘Hey Joel, where are you going with that?’ Hendrix takes over to play on the supposed death of rock.

The most concrete and poetic text of the album is in ‘A Nod’, where Segall sings: “Tried to please my mother/Tried to please my father/Tried to please everyone but me”, “My friends say I need money/My friends say I need followers/But I want to believe in me”.

The half-formed songs are an example of the continuous artistic flow of Ty Segall and Fence, who manage to remain attached to their creative activity with absolute incisiveness. Joy is a modus operandi of work and attitude to admire.

The use of pitch shifting and numerous slogans such as ‘Body Behavior’ or ‘Please Do Not Leave This Town’ leave a sense of the cyclonic and joyful: as in an eternal ride on a roller coaster.

In Joy, things come together and resume the thread of Hair, their first album collaborative album together, released in 2012. After a feast of a garage rock that still embellishes your session of listening, the closure of ‘My Friend’ is quite useless for the purpose of the album, but still remains a ballad slightly dreamy, pleasant to listen to.

A daring record for an expert and ready duo, an album made with craft and lo-fi attitude, a test that we cannot disdain and that exalts a historical collaboration.

Gianluigi Marsibilio 


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