By Steve McGillivray
As much as the name hints at multiple members, U.S. Girls is down to one woman, Meghan Remy. Starting in 2008, using multiple instruments and a host of recording equipment in various stages of disrepair, Remy has pursued the minimalist approach to composing and recording on her releases to date. Gems, the latest release, is her first on FatCat Records. The album promises a more band-oriented direction than previous releases whilst maintaining the striking vocals of Remy as the main focus of the songs.
The album starts in haunting fashion with ‘Another Color’. A dark and daunting sound ebbs and flows, while bright notes sparkle in the gloom. From out of the depths rises a hopeful note that blossoms into a nicely distorted sound, aided by stripped back percussion and bass. It gathers momentum before Remy’s striking vocal comes in. There’s plenty of fuzz around the edges but the vocal really shines out like a beacon, echoing the great voices of ’60s America. It’s a beautifully crafted opener that hints at what’s to come.
‘Work From Home’, meanwhile, starts with muffled percussion and bright keys, while the bass rumbles away underneath. The repeating synth/keyboard keeps the mood of the song light. The vocal feels like it belongs on a song from a bygone era and I must say it’s refreshing to hear a strong vocal performance from a female singer – too often we’re subjected to the warbling pop nonsense that passes for singing these days. This is more like it. ‘Jack’ has a really nice tempo and rhythm to it. There’s even handclaps in there, which I’m a total sucker for. Production is pretty full on. There’s a lot happening in the song, but the wall of sound never interferes or distracts from any aspect of the music or vocals. Bass drum and handclaps keep the steady tempo going throughout. A really good track.
The tempo is slower on ‘He Who’. Crisp percussion and a lovely guitar/piano combo add a dash of light to the otherwise bass heavy and gloomy atmosphere that’s created. ‘Rosemary’ follows and starts in an equally portentous manner. There’s a dark gloom hanging over the song, with the vocals being more considered. There’s an almost theatrical quality to the song, which moves along at a steady and sombre tempo. It’s an interesting change of pace on this and the previous instrumental track and shows another side to U.S. Girls. The shadows cling to the intro of ‘I Don’t Understand That Man’. The rhythm section sit at a modest tempo. while the production again leaves a nice crackle around the edges. The guitar sounds really nice, but is used sparingly. The vocal sits way back in the mix and overall it’s a great, if short, song.
There’s much more of a swagger on ‘Slim Baby’, which comes in with a confident guitar riff and the tempo of a ’70s rock song. The feeling here is edgier and more assured. It’s all very controlled, but you get the feeling it’s only by the skin of the teeth – like a caged animal this track just wants to run wild. It’s all attitude and barely contained power and a damn fine track. ‘Down In The Boondocks’ evokes that ’50s/’60s feel, in complete contrast to the previous track. The vocal style will have you grasping for the song it reminds you of. The guitar and rhythm section are more conventional, but there’s no getting away from the feeling that this song should be about High School prom and a drive-thru movie. It’s a good marrying of the retro vocal with modern production.
Elsewhere, there’s a mash-up of sorts with ‘Curves’, which is essentially a collection of audio clips that sound like they were lifted from old movies, stitched together with various sound textures. ‘North on 45′ closes out the album. Like ‘…Boondocks’ you feel like you’re looking into the past. It’s a gentle song, with a nice piano accompanying stripped back drums and bass. As with most songs here, Meghan Remy’s vocal sounds fantastic. It’s a voice with loads of character that works as well here on a slower track as it does on the more up tempo songs.
Gem is a really interesting album. It blends various influences and the result is an album that never sits comfortably in any particular genre. Swinging from dark, moody and discordant to heartfelt and gentle, the key factor in it all is Meghan Remy’s strong voice. She handles the differing sounds with complete ease. The production is a big factor on the album for me too. There’s a DIY feel to it that gives the songs a rough edge that I think works really well. Remy’s voice is not your typical pop diva’s so the production can’t be too polished and clean and the balance here is just right. While the album didn’t grab me on the first couple of listens I’ve grown into it and found it really enjoyable and something a little bit different and refreshing to what’s around just now. FatCat Records have got another great artist on the bill to add to an already impressive roster. Bravo!