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



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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.

REVIEW
Words: Dominic Valvona



Craig Finn  ‘We All Want The Same Things’
Released by Partisan Records,  March 24th 2017

Occupying a rich postmodern American literary landscape, channeling such celebrated chroniclers as Bruce Springsteen and Vic Chesnutt, former The Hold Steady, and prior to that Lifter Puller, front man Craig Finn has in more recent years carved out a career as a successful solo artist. In true Springsteen style, though with far less guttural bombast, Finn brings a certain levity and importance to the lives of America’s “ordinary folk”, building a highly erudite diorama to stage the unfolding, and to outsiders, the often inconsequential dramas that are acted out across the States on a daily cycle.

 

Continuing to pass time in philosophical angst and contemplative lament, frequenting the bars of Minneapolis, or, triggered by mourning, heading out on a road trip with no plan but finding a fleeting connection, Finn populates his latest album, We All Want The Same Things, with a cast, “all trying to help themselves, trying to move forward, and in some cases trying just to survive.” United in there, and of course our, basic needs, under the darkening clouds of a changing political landscape, the bluesy troubadour finds a poignant commonality between the characters in his songbook. Finn himself, in his most autobiographical allusion, uses his own experiences of feeling adrift in a world that “didn’t seem to have a lot of room for me” after returning to the “Twin Cities” of home from college in the mid 90s, on the melodically breezy but lived-in gnarled saloon lament, Prelude.

Subtly tapping into the “liberal” creative psyche of America, one that’s still in a state of shock, but also the so-called “blue collar” America that put Trump in the White House, Finn doesn’t so much point fingers or berate as reflect the resignation of a cast on the peripherals of society.

Enriched with the graceful subtle presence and soaring vocal harmonies of Caithlin De Marrais (former Rainer Maria vocalist) and singer/songwriter Annie Nero, the keys of Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Langhorne Slim), swaddling and lifting horns maestro Stuart Bogie (Arcade Fire, Antibalas), and longtime contributor from The Hold Steady, guitarist Tad Kubler, the musical backdrop is a mix of rolling Warren Zevon piano psychodrama, bluesy rock’n’roll and Ashbury Park period E Street Band brass. A solid performance and assiduous edition to the modern American songbook, Finn’s third solo album shows a full-bodied, sagacious artist at his pinnacle.





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