National MusicReviews

Album Review: In A Poem Unlimited – U.S. Girls

As 2017 started to slowly crawl to a close, a reckoning was sweeping through Hollywood. Women began to take up arms vocally against all the corrupted, horrific male abusers in the film industry. And although the allegations that kept rolling through were shocking, there was a strong sense of exhilaration and empowerment for many, many people. And rightfully so, for it seemed that women across the nation were shifting the dynamics of power with not just an upper-hand but an arced fist to those who long had it coming. It is against this backdrop that Meg Remy released what was to be the first taste of new music from the upcoming U.S. Girls album. The song was “Mad As Hell” and although the chorus is highly applicable to this movement, the song itself actually was a critical takedown of President Obama. Despite being very clear on its message, the song wound up becoming the theme of the modern day-to-day for me as new allegation after new allegation piled up. And now that the full album is out, its message of female empowerment continues to accidentally be a commentary on the ongoing effects of male dominance being toppled.

In A Poem Unlimited was likely largely completed before the movement of women taking back control started to become something major in the United States. But the way in which it speaks so perfectly to this movement shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who is familiar with U.S. Girls. In fact, the previous U.S. Girls album (2015’s incredible Half Free) is largely woven of the same cloth. If anything, Poem continues where that album left off and expounds even more on it. This time though, Remy is backed by over 20 collaborators who go deeper into new genres that previous albums only hinted at. And although the themes of this new album are in-line with what Remy loves to write about, they too go even deeper and darker to say something new.

The album starts off strikingly with “Velvet 4 Sale,” a song whose dreamy, funk-infused instrumental lures you into a dark tale about women buying guns to protect themselves from men. Although the subject matter is darkly suggesting violence against violence as the answer, it’s obvious that this idea is an allegory of women snatching control from men. But for the characters within the song, everything is viscerally real. When Remy sings “Guarantee at least one bullet goes behind the eyes, cause they always could come back for more” you feel very much in that moment, and that transportation to a place is something Remy is a master at.

Many of the songs on the album shift around to different places and situations, making it move like a collection of tightly constructed short stories all with something vital to say. And although the message shifts, it mostly circles around the theme of women in bad situations trying to gain a voice back. This shifting message but central theme is also directly applicable to instrumentals on the album. The whole thing can be described as jazz and funk-infused disco, but song-to-song the flavor of the genres twist into new territories, refusing to sit still too long.

The dark tone-setter of an opener, though, carries over perfectly into “Rage Of Plastics,” which contains further exploration of fuzzy funk guitar leads and a full-band sound, which by the way is something new for Remy. In the past, she’s focused on stripped down instrumentals or samples, but throughout the entirety of Poem we get a bigger sound with live instrumentals. The sounds pop and burst with the clean, tight production. “Mad As Hell” gives you a bit more of the disco-side of things, but its instrumental accompaniment is still as big as anything on here. The bouncy horn and guitar parts keep the song moving and begs you to move along with it. “Pearly Gates” is another one that moves along at such a perfect pace that you can’t help but feel like moving. The layered vocal parts on that track are heavenly, which is a perfect word to use here considering the song is a twisted take on St. Peter.

But perhaps some of the strongest aspects of this album reach near chaotic levels of fast-paced sound. The song “Incidental Boogie” has so many sounds packed into 3 and a half minutes. The swirling noise of searing guitars and synths ratchet up to incredible levels each time the song moves to its pseudo-chorus. As the song begins to peak, the instrumentals seem to be flowing in so many directions resulting in a thrilling explosion, unlike anything I’ve heard so far this year. The final track “Time” does a similar thing with its constant movement. The song itself begins as one of the fastest, jazziest songs on the record, but as Remy’s voice starts to reach up high the song really takes off. The majority of the run-time of this closing track is devoted to a showcasing of Remy’s collaborators. A song that seems to want to rip through to a finale starts to free-flow into a large instrumental-only section with horn riffs and guitar jams backed by a surge of rhythm. It’s an oddly fitting way to end an album whose main instrumental mood is concerning moving to the next thing.

Although In A Poem Unlimited is stacked with a variety of different sounds and stories, it remains a strangely complete album. The surreal nature of the subject matter remains a compelling, constant force. And although the instrumentals get experimental in new sound collages, they still circle around a few key genres. Meg Remy herself also changes her vocal styles up every now and then. On the slowish but incredible affecting “Rosebud,” her voice smoothly soars over a layering of sound. On the glitchy, electronic-focused “Poem,” her voice gets processed to a point where she becomes a part of the music itself. Her chameleon-like nature of becoming something new and letting the song dictate how she leads it is one of the strongest points of the album. She doesn’t ever hold herself back from diving into a sound or idea that is new for her. Instead, she jumps right in and gets comfortable, grasping control over a rolling wave of beautifully constructed music. Sometimes things get really dark, but Remy never is afraid to wrap that darkness up in dance-able immediacy. This juxtaposition also calls back to the ongoing women’s movement in our country. Although the details are horrific, the overwhelming feeling of justice prevailing or good triumphing over evil sits right on top of it. Meg Remy may be living back in Canada again, but over here in the States, she’s giving a soundtrack to a revolution where previously silenced voices are shouting through the darkness. And no one could ask for a better soundtrack.

4.7 out of 5.

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