Album review: U.S. Girls – In a Poem Unlimited

John Preston

The semantics of what U.S. Girls actually are is irrelevant. Meghan Remy is an American singer-songwriter and signed to 4AD a couple of years ago and In a Poem Unlimited is her second album for the label. 2015’s Half Free took her previous, 60s girl-group vocal samples, which were set amongst skeletal but cavernous noise pop, and fine tuned them and fleshed them out into something closer to alternative indie pop. It was a great record but still suffered somewhat with a temperamental and undecided sonic smorgasbord.

With In a Poem Unlimited however this is no longer a problem. Remy has refined her sound even more and brilliantly so. Styles may still vary widely but are all rooted in dance music of some definition, and this is music with a strong political bent which is betrayed, alarmingly sometimes, by the hi-hats and the frivolous nature of the sometimes surgical melodies.

Abuse, poverty, religion, public healthcare, a rampant capitalist culture and murderous revenge for unacceptable male actions are all subjects game for discussion here, not that you would guess it immediately. More than anything else, U.S. Girls harks back to the early 80s Ze records Mutant Disco collective, who made socially aware music they loved as opposed to the music they were expected to make based on their race and gender and which had a strong footing in disco, new wave and electronic music.

In a Poem Unlimited could have been recorded during this period it’s true but it sounds timeless, never nostalgic or revivalist. It’s subversive pop music that doesn’t feel the need to embrace contemporary radio sounds and the likes of tropical house and blokey boy-guitar don’t feature, not that Remy would rule anything out – ‘Damn That Valley’ from Half Free sounded like peak M.I.A.

As her musical career has progressed Meghan Remy has moved away from her insular singer-songwriter stance and on this album has embraced a large collective of writers, but she never falls into the muse category. These are collaborations certainly, but Remy is constantly dictating the mood, message and performance of every song. Tracks like the record’s sleek, electro-pop sleeper ‘Poem’ are so singular and self possessed with its theme of a society out of of control, high on electronic devices and constant connections.

Remy delivers these commentaries with such an under-the-skin subtly that she makes the listener curious to question what they are hearing and forces them to lean in closer. The album’s openers ‘Velvet 4 Sale’ and the sax squawk of ‘Rage of Plastics’ sound rougher and are more blues-rock than synth-pop but both immediately demand attention with big rewards.

In a Poem Unlimited really hits its stride from track three onwards. ‘M.A.H’ was the introduction song to the album and is an instantly addictive, sweet-voiced swirling disco track very in much in the mode of, and with some melodic nods to, Blondie’s seminal ‘Heart of Glass’. Remy takes her aim (‘mad as hell’) at Barack Obama’s failures (easy to forget in the current Trump age), not that you’d guess as you’ll be too busy dancing. Rosebud bewitches with glacial strings and seductive beats and the uncanny threat that ‘it’ll hurt, I promise you’.

‘Incidental Boogie’, an older live track which finally has finally come to recorded fruition, is a perverse, deranged and wonderfully imagined story of a woman who is relieved to be in a relationship where her abusive partner doesn’t leave marks and makes her think less.

The album’s final track feels like Remy is throwing all her musical cards in the air and seeing where they land. Unlike the album’s overall tight and meticulous musical aesthetic, ‘Time’ is far looser, jazzier free-form rock out which is nearly eight minutes long and only two and a half of those have vocals. It’s the album’s most frustrating moment too in that it’s hard to justify its length and, with it’s relatively short playing time, the album could have had another song if ‘Time’ were cut into two. But there is also a sense that Remy felt some relief in ending with this kind of exhilarating and live-band spontaneity, and it’s certainly well deserved.

U.S. Girls have made their best album with In a Poem Unlimited and it’s the first exceptional record of 2018, one that many need to hear as dancing and politics is long overdue for a revival.

About John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.