U.S. Girls at Scala: ‘left-of-centre political art pop’

When former art school student and graphic designer Meghan Remy created her U.S. Girls project back in 2007, she envisaged it as a vehicle for sonic exploration into the realms of pop, with little expectation to be heard beyond the closely-knit Chicago and Portland scenes in which she was operating. Some nine releases later – the previous two on the prestigious 4AD label (think The National, Grimes and Future Islands to name but a few) – and an air of anticipation and excitement surrounds her London date at Scala.

Remy’s latest album, In A Poem Unlimited, is possibly her most acclaimed to date, and the record Remy and her band leant heavily on as the backbone of their set. It was a packed stage as the eight-person-strong band arrived to the slinking lounge jazz of ‘Velvet 4 Sale’ before being joined by a pokerfaced, strutting Remy and her regular backing vocalist. This was quickly followed by the searing saxophone-led ‘Rage of Plastics’, which saw Remy wryly lament the plight of working women to a cacophony of distorted funk guitar grooves. A fearsome frontwoman, Remy never broke character, maintaining a steely gaze as she spent the interludes between songs toying with a sampler which fluctuated between glitchy flickers of white noise and carefully chosen spoken word extracts that accentuated the political messages of her music.

In spite of the luxurious saunter of ‘Rosebud’ and danceable 80s flecked rhythms of Trump-bashing ‘M.A.H.’ there was a brooding menace that emanated from Remy, her deadpan delivery a firm reminder of the artistry and staunch political messages that lay at the heart of her latest collection of songs, embellished by her phenomenally tight group of backing musicians. The result: a surrealist genre-bending experience that touched upon everything from Blondie to Bowie via a sprinkling of ABBA-esque harmonies and surf rock guitar hooks.

As the evening progressed there we splashes of the avant-garde art pop of previous album Half-Free as she treated the audience to an intoxicatingly dreamy rendition of ‘Sororal Feelings’ before the shimmering strut of ‘Window Shades’ compelled the crowd to join in the song’s central refrain of “how did I leave it all up to you?’ Another highlight came from ‘Island Song’, a lo-fi slow burner from 2011 album U.S. Girls on KRAAK, which perfectly managed to capture the untainted beauty of Remy’s melancholic alto voice offset by a simple synth backing.

The band’s 12 song set culminated in a truly spectacular dénouement. A chaotic 20-minute rendition of album closer ‘Time’ that played out as something more akin to a frenzied rollercoaster of emotions, barely teetering on the edge of control as dynamics ebbed and flowed. An excuse for Remy’s incredible band to showcase their musical talents, with a series of intermittent solos from deeply groovy basslines to frenetic drum solos and Clarence Clemons-esque saxaphony: a psychedelic melting pot of haywire musicianship and unrelenting infectious joy. Such was the mind-bendingly chaotic stage setup that I half expected David Lynch to pop his head around the curtain to claim rightful credit as the orchestrator of this demented showcase. The perfect close to a night of left-of-centre political art pop. 

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