U.S. Girls – Half Free
In a recent Vice interview, Meg Remy – long-time noisemaker and the brains behind U.S. Girls – mentioned that the two biggest influences for Half Free were John Cassavetes and Bruce Springsteen. The sense of getting into the heads of characters, then, is an obvious starting point for the album, but it’s really Bruce Springsteen that seems to take on the lion’s share of influence here. It starts with the cover photo: Remy in black and white, staring into the camera with seemingly the exact same expression that the Boss has on the cover of The River. It continues on through the songs, which are all portraits of women in a variety of nightmarish scenarios; the nightmares take on a more visceral bent due to the fact that these are ordinary women in ordinary worlds and the problems that they find themselves mired in are all too depressingly plausible. “Sororal Feelings” examines a woman in a crumbling marriage who discovers that her husband has slept with her three sisters; “Damn That Valley” wraps a vicious examination of the failures of the U.S. War on Terror in the grief-stricken wail of a woman whose solider husband won’t be coming home. “Window Shades” follows up a snide skit on being “another woman with no self-esteem” with a woman who’s finally able to confront her no-account cheating boyfriend. The seven-minute closer “Woman’s Work” is a hazy, cluttered Italo Disco masterpiece that rages against the religion of beauty and growls that a woman’s work is never finished. Half Free is a deeply feminist record, an account of finding inner strength despite the odds stacked against women from all walks of life
This is music, though, so we need to look at the musical aesthetic of the album. This is where Half Free starts to lose me a little. “Sororal Feelings” is flawless, a perfect opener with a deceitful chorus that is probably never going to leave my brain. “Damn That Valley” finds catharsis in a monster reggae beat, and Remy finds the right vocal lilt to ride it perfectly. That said, it feels as though there’s too much piled on to the track – a problem that could be said of “New Age Thriller”, “Sed Knife”, and “Red Comes In Many Shades” as well. This is where Remy’s background comes in; she spent her pre-Toronto years recording shitgaze and noise pop for tiny noise labels, burying her classic radio chops in waves of distortion, instrumentation, and tape noise. Those days are still evident in many places throughout Half Free, and while I enjoy noise and clutter, there are parts of the album that I feel would have benefited from a cleaner mix, or at the very least a couple fewer voices (the hard-as-nails rock of “Sed Knife” is a great example of this).
Still, aesthetic quibbles aside, Half Free is an astonishing record that speaks to both the galvanizing effect that having a greatly increased budget can have on a creative and passionate artist, and to the keen eye 4AD has for picking those creative and passionate artists. If Meg Remy wasn’t on your radar before, put her on it – there are bigger things to come.