Review Summary: A woman’s work is never done.
U.S. Girls is the brainchild of Meghan Remy, according to herself it started out as a Solo-project but has become much more of a band in recent years. The project has already provided the music community with two previous albums, both of which have flown mostly under the radar. In the time leading up to their third album the band got signed by prestigious indie label 4AD and their new album “Half Free” received a bit more attention.
Rightfully so. “Half Free” is a gorgeous album. Deeply entangled with a whole plethora of influences and aesthetics ranging from retro bubblegum pop to noise rock, Meghan Remy masterminds her ensemble to create soundscapes that draw heavily from the familiar but end up sounding completely fresh. While the songs are very much entrenched in familiar sounds from past decades, Remy takes quiet a lot of chances with her songwriting and deviates regularly from the tried and true verse-chorus-verse structure, while somehow creating some very memorable pop hooks at the same time. The instrumentation on every song is textured and very varied and especially compared to her earlier works the production is immaculate. However varied the songs are, due to the excellent production the album feels concise because every track oozes the same warm atmosphere. Album highlight “Navy & Cream” is a glowing example of those strengths, with its hypnotizing slow groove and an excellent vocal performance by Remy, who sounds like a 70s pop starlet on this song.
Sonically “Half free” is quite a beautiful album.
“Half Free” is also a very dark and bitter album. Underneath the pretty retro-pop surface there is an intensity brewing that is also reflected in Remy's vocal performances who are sometimes very clean and soft ("Navy & Cream") but can also be shrill and urgent ("Woman's Work"). Lyrically every song tackles the plights of women, all of whom are in some way only half free. Almost all of their problems superficially relate to the men in their lives. The woman in album opener “Sororal Feelings” struggles to deal with the fact that her husband settled for her after having sex with all her sisters first, while the narrator in “Damn that Valley” has to cope with the death of her man in some nondescript war. At first glance, you might think that “Half Free” is an album about terrible men who cause nothing but grieve. Remy is far too nimble of a songwritress to be quiet so blunt. All of the characters in her songs deal with a lack of confidence and insecurity that manifests in an unhealthy fixation on the (mostly absent) men in their lives. The album doesn't make a point of playing the “blame game” but instead tries to paint everything in a much more murky light and the women in these songs are in turn much more relatable and feel like actual people.
The lyrics and the songwriting on “Half Free” are ultimately what elevates it above being just another pretty retro pop album. Remy manages to give the listener compelling glimpse into the most intimate thoughts of her characters and tells a short and bitter story on every song.
Overall, “Half Free” is both accessible and challenging, it entices the listener with its warm and enjoyable atmosphere as well as its slick pop hooks, but also rewards further listening because of how well the characters and stories in these songs are crafted. Not every song on this LP works equally well, sometimes the concept of the story is better than the execution, but in its relatively short runtime, “Half Free” never starts to drag.