Ten years ago, if music was released that could be classified as “lo-fi” (i.e. microphone hiss, lots of clipping), it probably was down to financial restraints (or some very particular aesthetic). But nowadays, good recording equipment is readily available at somewhat reasonable prices, along with the relevant software to make an unsigned artist’s music sound near enough professional. If you caught anyone using a four-track tape recorder now, you could be forgiven for thinking they are obsessively retro or have never used a computer in their life.
Or, they could just be playing the market well; as the quality of recording equipment has improved, the yearning for a “lo-fi” sound has increased among music fans, all accumulating to sudden revivals which breed sub-genres like “glo-fi” and “chillwave.” Thus, the presence of music that’s drowned in hiss or “personal lonely texture” isn’t as readily dismissed as most would think it to be. Some even devotedly listen, engage and openly like this music, which is fine when there’s good songwriting and infectious imagination on display.
Enter U.S. Girls, the moniker of one Meghan Remy, who, with the release of her third full-length on a new label, takes another step up the lo-fi ladder. I should be clear though: her music is still definitely what the vast majority of listeners would class as “lo-fi.” Every track has some sort of hiss present while Remy’s voice aches to go beyond the capabilities of her recording equipment.
Thankfully this doesn’t mar her too much, and her impressive voice still manages to shine through, filling each and every corner when it’s layered or hits a high note. A simple comparison might be to Nika Roza Danilova (aka Zola Jesus) but with of a more nasal complexion, but I can’t help but feel that that similarity is brought to mind because the standout track on U.S. Girls on KRAAK sounds like some strange version of a Zola Jesus song merged with an alternate take on Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” The track – “Island Song” – works though, and it’s a considered and odd pop song that finds its way into your head right from the sprinkly piano melody at the beginning.
Unfortunately there’s nothing else like “Island Song” on the album, which might be one of the reasons it stands out so well. Surrounding it are a multitude of other tracks that put different genres into her lo-fi setting, and also a number of seemingly random snippets of ideas. There’s a rendition of Brandy and Monica’s 1998 song “The Boy Is Mine,” where Remy manages to take on the role of the two singers of the original version, altering her voice between verses and choruses. On “Iran Then, Iraqognized Her” she creates an intriguing ambient nugget, with spacious drones and skittering percussion, while on the quite simply strange “Friendlies + Pamela + GG” she morphs together different sections to create a whole (much like that title might suggests), which sounds every song from the Japanese music chart all at once. She even manages to throw in a country ditty at the end of the album (“Peotone”), offering Remy at her clearest and most honest, away from all the effects and psychedelia.
The thing is though, that these are pretty much the only songs of interest here, and the first of them doesn’t arrive until track six. Before that there’s a selection of five forgettable tracks that sound like passing ideas extracted from a tape recorder, if not spontaneously from Remy’s head. One or two of these kind of tracks are of passing interest (the glimmering and almost summery melodies on “The Day After 4th July,” the warped carousel soundbite “Si, I Mean Oui”) but much as I already said, the rest are merely ideas that don’t add to the listening experience (in fact, the annoying child on the opening “Test Test” actually detracts from it).
When she gets her act together, and gets down to writing and recording a decent song, the end result is worth listening to (“Island Song,” “Peotone”) and her charm can help draw you in to those other tracks that don’t have quite as sturdy a backbone (I quite honestly hated this album to begin with but have since warmed to the latter half of it). I have no qualms with her continuing to create “lo-fi” music – she even seems to pay homage to it with the warped videotape synths on “The Boy in Mine” or the muffled radio crooning on “Wells Dubs” – but considering she’s openly aspired to recording something with a cleaner sound, and has recently signed to FatCat Records, she might be making a few more steps up that lo-fi ladder. I hope her songwriting talent goes up with her.
Plugging away since 1999, The National finally hit mainstream success with the release of their 2010 album High Violet. Of course, this entailed their first world tour, but in the new documentary Mistaken For Strangers, it’s only the backdrop for the relationship between lead singer Matt Berninger and his younger brother Tom, who had no idea that these short videos he was shooting would turn into a public document of their troubled, if still loving brotherhood.
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