U.S. Girls Half Free

[4AD; 2015]

Rating: 5/5

Styles: pop, outsider pop, dirge, chamber music, illbient, disco, new wave and a lil bit of rock
Others: Chelsea Wolfe, Cindy Sherman, Queen of Earth, PJ Harvey, Lower Dens, Ariel Pink

The year was 2013. I’m a dude falling out of love with Animal Collective and one who didn’t think 2012’s GEM was any good. I was an idiot (w/r/t the latter) and, on top of things, completely oblivious to an exciting new phase of U.S. Girls being teased out with an EP called Free Advice Column. A shufflin’ Cars intro is turned into Joe Spinell’s face imploding beneath a gleaming stiletto heel on “Incidental Boogie.” The delirious “Overtime” foretells this album’s Cassavetes-inspired themes of semi-controllable interpersonal chaos. I’m pretty sure A.V. Club did a piece on songs about the monthlies (‘less I imagined this for some strange reason), and the keening, queasy “28 Days” could easily be the best thing on it. GEM is a morbidly compelling, jaundice marbled pearl, but these well bumpable burners (co-conceived with current collaborator Onakabazien) were upping the ante. I’ve gobbled this stuff up all summer while eagerly setting my sights on what was next, which turned out to be something surprising, concise, wild, direct, inscrutable, sultry, subversive, pained, defiant, and, overall, blessedly unequivocal.

It isn’t often that an album surfaces whose winsomeness preemptively makes one despondent toward any dissent or apathy that (though it’s everyone’s due who dares) annoyingly always manages to muddle your fervor. Over and over, listen after listen and Half Free just plain sends. Mastermind Meg Remy’s first album for the vaunted 4AD label is bursting with vivid, cracked imagination and cool mastery of slippery pop allure. Her seven years and twenty releases have been restlessly inventive and unfailingly worthwhile, but this new chapter feels like a gift. It was somewhat intriguing to see some wary reactions to singles “Damn That Valley” and “Woman’s Work” on (I know, I know) YouTube. There have always been stretchy shades of dread to U.S. Girls, and her mostly spare, grimy sound has served her well. Much of that grit remains, but the menace has grown with the added fidelity. There is a desperate rush of breath (much like the one that ends the record), a barely-contained panic that there’s nowhere to run (away from or toward) and that basic momentum is the only ideal that makes sense anymore.

A great illustration of this bracing delirium is her full rock-band arrangement of “Rosemary” B-side “Sed Knife.” After a side’s worth of experiments in torching and haunting, “Sed Knife” careens into you with the rampaging Florence Against The Machine jam you never knew you needed. This song could and should be a hit for U.S. Girls, even if it resembles none of the surrounding material of Half Free. It is a magnificently crafted pop song (really more Waxahatchee than Florence), whose incongruity suggests that, while the cast of her muse is stark, she has a formidable ear for the sweet stuff. Not that there isn’t pain in this song, but you feel less like a zombie-coddler when you move to it. Even the crystalline bounce of Gloria Ann Taylor’s “Love is a Hurting Thing” can’t keep “Window Shades” from sounding like someone stuck on a record stuck on repeat stuck in the same endlessly recurring goddammit! state of emotional recoil. While the title is reminiscent of Midnight Vultures, “Navy & Cream” offers no such frivolity. Leading with what sounds like a reverb’d duck call, it is at once placid vaporwave smear and a bonafide twilight T.J.Maxx jam (check those cosmetics-aisle guitar peals at 1:47). But the department store lights are imperceptibly dimming, and you’re finding yourself alone. “I go to pieces, feeling distances increasing” and “I love you all of the time” are sung over and over, interlaced and hanging on a note of plush malfunction.

These pop songs are a bit disconcerting, but a lot of the best ones are (“Nothing Compares 2 U” comes to mind). But what comes through more is their naked intrigue and melodic resonance. Opener “Sororal Feelings” has one of the most morose choruses I’ve ever heard, yet it has not left my head since I first played it. The song gives the sensation of a particularly sordid and bleak southern gothic affair being introduced, yet it has an anthemic fullness outsizing its three minute runtime. Remy’s voice has never sounded so good, and yet she is still exemplary in her judicious use of poise/excess. Half Free is a dudless, succinct record with nonetheless staggering scope. Bad vibes abound, and even a bit of gallows humor in the form of an edging-on-deadpan phone snippet, but that dizzy propulsion carries one through and back again. The aptly named (the toy piano stabs got me thinking of the escaped-convict-loose-in-the-apartment-building variety) “New Age Thriller” concludes with the giddily sinister chant of “You won’t have nothin’ here. You got so much to fear.” But the needling sting of that ill portent is really the pulpy silver lining of the song’s undeniable strobo swing smoke machine cloud. These are songs that don’t let you off easy for paying half attention, but don’t punish you for losing yourself either.

Many (including Remy herself) have railed against the notion of obscurantism in art, and there is obviously much to unpack from Half Free. Each of these narrators are up against the proverbial wall and chanting toward whatever it is that makes them feel past it. Besides being the best song Chromatics never wrote, “Woman’s Work” encapsulates the skulking-meets-strutting vexedness of the record. Its death step arrangements are laid out — immaculate and intricate, desolate and disheveled. It’s droning cadences assail, effortlessly drowning out the sound of a million gobsmacked fans running out of rapturous contrasting adjectives. And did I mention it’s all bass-heavy massive and live as can be? Even the slower numbers moan with a certain Black Lodge, have-to-be-thereness. As it happens, there’ll be plenty of gigs at which to stand ‘n sway amazened. So drop whatever need for easy affirmation in pop you might have and vibe with the spooky, steely-eyed lady of the spotlight (and her synchronized back-up singers).

And go get Half Free, because this is easily the most on-point U.S. Girls has ever been. Listening to it is like being blindfolded and set loose at a strange party, with harrowing, yet palatable flashes of dread competing with the revelry. Like an immediately gratifying cocktail with a dispeptic kicker. Its darkness finds you in a way that eclipses a lot of the moody pop music that’s come before, and it happens so quick it’s as though you’re suddenly two-stepping on the edge of a frozen waterfall. But you’re staying on your toes; you’re fixed and limber. Training on the sensory, trudging through the inevitable. Always halfway home and hurting with it in earnest.

Links: U.S. Girls - 4AD

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