October 20, 2015
With all pardons made for what might seem like lazy generalizations, it’s an exceptional time for female artists in Toronto’s underground. And this isn’t coming from some forced and foisted angle of “What’s it like to be a woman in rock?” Rather, this is about the thrill of watching engaged, driven artists sort through the rubble of a so-called post equality world and rightly ask, “Is that all there is?”
Last week, we got the treat of listening to Dilly Dally's Katie Monks address this with sheer visceral presence — a primal wail of frustration aimed at lust and power that often better articulated feelings than did the young musician’s lyrics; words not yet up to speed with her awesome natural instrument.
No such worries for Meg Remy, the massively talented force behind U.S. Girls. Yes, her voice — a wildly dramatic one that is just as comfortable echoing Brill Building-worthy form as it is screaming loud enough to topple structures — is there. But her lyrical acumen is entirely its equal. Both as a title and an insight on the full LP, Half Free is a state of being that describes so much: from the vaguely untethered feeling of a romantic relationship losing magnetism to the much larger question of just how open to opportunity this modern world is for women. The record is brimming with statements of defiance that read equally empowering and tragic. When on evocative centrepiece “New Age Thriller” she sings: “You must demand their consent/How can you be so active in your demise?/And I won’t provide it for you/Even though you force me to”, it’s hard to know exactly which emotion to respond with. All record, Remy walks this uncomfortable line with ridiculous ease — from stories of a suicidal woman married to a man who has slept with all her sisters to another spent waiting by the phone asking “What if I left it all up to you?” as her self-worth pirouettes precariously in her hand — these are songs that all solicit engagement from a listener. And yet, maybe the most affecting moment on the album is a skit, normally the kind of throwaway bit that serves only as proof that the musician in question shouldn’t quit their day job. “Telephone Play No.1” is too terrific for me to ruin by giving anything away here, but every time I hear it, it nags harder, digs deeper.
It says a lot about this LP’s lyrical power that we’ve not yet discussed its music, which is a tremendous tapestry of loops, torch songs, macabre atmosphere and flights of pop whimsy. Like Kate Bush before her, Remy is skilled at placing traditional hooks in slightly odd settings — like a standard 1950s living room with the furniture mischievously rearranged. You go to sit in a chair, but realize you’re under a lampshade. Like the excellent Cindy Sherman hinting portrait that graces the album’s cover, it’s that thin moment where the familiar and comfortable is in flux toward an unraveling.
Gonna say this now: if this album isn’t at least on the short list for next year’s Polaris Prize, there is something very, very wrong.