Meghan Remy (a.k.a. U.S. Girls) became a critically-revered indie-pop virtuoso with her 2018 album, In a Poem Unlimited. Singles like “Rosebud” and “Velvet 4 Sale” exuded an undeniable coolness coming from the slick post-disco production with saxophones and synths blaring. Remy also took center stage through a take-no-prisoners Debbie Harry persona, which is maybe best exemplified on “M.A.H.”, a not-so-subtle leftist criticism of Obama’s presidency. It calls back to the lounge-inspired avant-pop of Stereolab and Broadcast with some unwavering political commentary to boot. In other words, it’s already a classic.
U.S. Girls’ new album Heavy Light picks up where the last one left off, depending on how broadly you would characterize In a Poem Unlimited. The relatively-long introduction, “4 American Dollars”, carries the spirit of the previous album politically and sonically yet with neither aspect as sharpened. The sound is immediately of a different era, but it’s more like the Spinners or George McCrae than the expansive post-disco palette of In a Poem Unlimited. She incorporates commentary on American economic falsehoods by referencing bootstraps and offshore accounts and then takes it global in the outro by listing out some major currencies that most people are forced to fight over for scraps. It all adds up to a solid, straightforward opener, but with its grand outro, it was certainly supposed to be more.
Without “4 American Dollars” acting as an electrifying springboard à la “Velvet 4 Sale”, the rest of the album just can’t seem to find its footing, with some In a Poem Unlimited trademarks reappearing. Saxophone squalls at the two-minute mark of lead single “Overtime” to raise the stakes, but it still feels a little undercooked. “And Yet It Moves / Y Se Mueve” features an alluring spoken-word breakdown much like “L-Over”, and while it might be a little out of step with the rest of the song, it draws you into Remy’s unflappable poise as a singer. It’s this maximalist style that conflicts with the minimalist production of “Denise, Don’t Wait” and “Woodstock ’99” near the end of the album. A full album of ballads in this vein might work, but without a clean break from In a Poem Unlimited, they feel minor in comparison.
In critical ways, inspiration has given its way to pastiche. There’s a reason you don’t often encounter backup singers that sound like they perform in matching luxurious gowns anymore; the timestamp just hasn’t faded away. Incorporating other voices, especially when tackling sociopolitical material, is a vital act of solidarity, but the doo-wop approach in “Overtime” and “Born to Lose” feels a bit cutesy. It works better with an intensified sardonic M.O., as in “State House (It’s a Man’s World)” (updated from a 2011 small label release) where the famous Phil Spector drumbeat leads us into bleak and eerie territory. Still, it is a bit of a nonstarter, especially considering “M.A.H.” started with the same drumbeat and then diverged into more exciting territory.
The entirety of Heavy Light feels like a nonstarter: interesting, unique ideas squandered by a lack of blossoming. The album’s vibe is maybe best exemplified in the three skits where we get snippets of people asked broad questions, and their responses are layered over each other. The foundation of presenting different voices under a common experience or trauma is evident, but the result is a bit flimsy and unfocused. There’s a lot of dead air, which naturally kills the album flow, and apart from a few details in “The Most Hurtful Thing”, the responses are predictable. It helps make Heavy Light more down-to-earth and approachable, but a decent album is simply not Remy’s best.