The Singer, Not the Song
Sometimes, you can have the most banal memories. Case in point, I recall an hour-long drive home from a nearby small city to my small town as a teenager, riding shotgun in the passenger seat as my mother navigated the driving. It must have been late fall or winter, as I recall that we were driving home in the dark although it was still early evening. We had probably just gone on a shopping excursion, to get clothes and, in my case, CDs that you couldn’t get in our small Ontario town. About 15 minutes into the drive, my mother suddenly asked me a question out of the blue: “Do you know who sings this?” And then she broke into song – singing the chorus of what was “Down in the Boondocks”, a song she must have remembered from her childhood. To my bafflement, I didn’t know who sung it, let alone what got my mother to burst into song – I don’t think she was much of a singer in my household, aside from singing lullabies to me as a small child. This bothered me a little bit, enough for me to remember this fleeting memory, as, even in my early teens, I was a walking encyclopedia when it came to who sung what in the pop cultural pantheon. I knew everything, or thought I did. As it turns out, even now, I wasn’t sure who sung “Down in the Boondocks”. I had to look it up and see that it was a 1965 hit by Billy Joe Royal, written by the recently departed Joe South (R.I.P.).
It’s kind of funny that I don’t remember who sung “Down in the Boondocks”, as it is, indeed, something of an anonymous song – something that seems to belong to pop culture as a whole than any one individual. So, yes, this brings us to Megan Remy, who records and performs under the moniker U.S. Girls, who has, on this latest release, covered “Down in the Boondocks”. It’s something of an apt choice on an album that marries ‘60s pop – particularly girl group pop – with ‘70s glam rock and experimental abstraction, and it comes off as affectionate homage – it’s a shimmery and watery take on the song, and, in Remy’s and producer Slim Twig’s hands, doesn’t stray too far from the original. Still, Remy puts her indelible stamp on the song, singing from a masculine perspective – something that oddly works, but perhaps that to be expected from an artist who is probably best known to this point for covering Bruce Springsteen. The U.S. Girls take on “Down in the Boondocks” is something to get excited about on a record that has almost a multiple personality disorder – it wants to be engaging and warm, and excite the listener with all sorts of sounds from pop’s past, as much as it is a garish piece of nightmarish art, that keeps one pushed back. There’s a lot to be happening for sure on an album that’s roughly only a half-hour long.
This dual polarity is evident on the opening track, in fact – the five-and-a-half minute “Another Color” – which opens with a music box piece of jagged sound that careens for an experimental minute and half before giving way to the simmering melody of the proper song. Here, and elsewhere, Remy happens to sound a lot like the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde if she magically crossed paths with Cyndi Lauper. “Another Color” is a song of longing, with Remy repeating, almost to a fault, “I wait, I wait for you”, and the song is built in its final minute of a repetitive riff that is, while engaging, a bit on the hammered-into-one’s-head side. This act is followed up with “Work from Home”, which features a keyboard/organ that is so creaky that it could have come out of a Universal horror movie of the ‘30s. (There’s probably a reason why this album is being released a week prior to Halloween.) Here, Remy revels in her girl group persona, bringing forth a taunt, stretched out tease of a song that offers all sorts of different doorways into a shape-shifting melody that is undeniably pop, making it something of the album’s standout track, alongside that Billy Joe Royal cover. But not far behind is a take on Brock Robinson’s Jack the Ripper-inspired “Jack”, with its chorus “You dress the way you do”. It’s almost as though Remy is more comfortable expressing herself from the masculine perspective at times, and does so to inhabit all sorts of unsavory, low life characters, exploring the flaws in maleness as a whole. Elsewhere, “Slim Baby” appears to be a shout-out to her producer’s chair partner and current touring mate. The song sounds so Bolan-esque, it simmers and seethes with all sorts of swarmy come-ons that you can’t look away.
However, GEM is something of a rough one, for with every couple of engaging and captivating song comes a track that feels a little flat – experimental for the sake of experiment’s sake. The two-minute sound collage “Curves”, which follows “Down in the Boondocks”, stops the album dead cold, and you’d be forgiven for not thinking that there was another song after this one. And “He Who” is just an instrumental piano piece against a drum machine beat that is suitably brooding and menacing, but doesn’t really go anywhere except to pad out an already short album. There’s the wonder that GEM might have been better served as being an EP, with all of the debris excised, making it something of a wonderful pure pop statement. Remy has the swagger. It seems rather baffling that someone would spend some deal of time being inaccessible, when, in fact, the pop moments prove that she does, indeed, have something of great value to offer – a gem of a voice and a keening sense of glamour. All in all, there’s a lot to recommend with GEM, making it more a work in progress of the artist at large. In any event, I can say something with a great deal of certainty. Next time I go riding with my mother , and she starts out into song and asks me who sings “Down in the Boondocks”, I now know the answer. It’s U.S. Girls.