When Merrill Garbus first committed her tUnE-yArDs persona to tape, she used a simple dictaphone to capture every part and then lovingly pieced it all together on GarageBand. A laborious process partly enforced by tight finances, the resulting album "Bird-Brains" (2009) was a sheer joy. A record so unique, it immediately set hearts racing; The Guardian in their five-star review went as far as to call her "the find of the year." At the same time, she enlisted Nate Brenner on bass to help her make tUnE-yArDs an unmissable live act. It worked. Word of mouth quickly spread, helping to fill every venue they played and to take the magic of Bird-Brains across the world. With a record deal also in the bag, she was able to now concentrate on being a musician full-time.

Shortly after, Merrill relocated from Montreal to Oakland, California, a new home that would have a huge influence on the themes for her next record, the call to arms that was "w h o k i l l" (2011). Recording in a studio for the first time, it showed Bird-Brains to be no fluke. Lyrically, Garbus explored constructs of femininity and sexuality, marrying it with the threat of violence that lurks on the streets where she lives, all the while maintaining the energy of their show and translating it perfectly to record. Cropping up in nearly all end of year lists, it was topped off with "w h o k i l l" named Album of the Year in the Village Voice’s highly prestigious Pazz & Jop poll, based on the votes of 700 of America’s most notable music critics.

After 18 months of near solid touring around the second album, Merrill gave herself some much-needed time off; "It was nice; I was trying to be healthy and have a good time,” she says. It was also the first time since embarking on life as tUnE-yArDs that she was without any new material in the works, allowing her to reflect on what’s gone before and where to next; “I thought, 'OK, if I'm going to grow as an artist, I need to do this differently.’”

Where the second album saw her stepping in to a studio proper for the first time, her third album "Nikki Nack" sees her enlist producers to help her achieve new heights on some tracks; “To ask Malay (Frank Ocean, Alicia Keys, Big Boi) and John Hill (Rihanna, Shakira, M.I.A.) for input, I had to let go of tUnE-yArDs being rigidly my production. I have a very specific vision for the sound of the band and I don't think women producers get enough credit for doing their own stuff, so I was resistant – but we grew, Nate and I both, and the songs grew. And it turns out that's what's most important: the songs, not my ego.”

A record that could only have been made by its creator, at heart it’s heavy yet still retains a sense of fun. This is explained in part by experiences in between records - like a life-affirming trip to Haiti (which she wrote extensively about for the online magazine written by the artists themselves, The Talkhouse) and her finally catching up with 80s kid’s TV programme Pee Wee’s Playhouse some 25 years since first broadcast - proving influential during the songwriting process. Her upbringing was also at the forefront of her mind in this period, shown by her subtle use of the traditional American music her parents raised her on to help colour her new creation (her dad’s old fiddle too makes an appearance).

Experimentation is still key for tUnE-yArDs. Where the loop pedal and the saxophone were main components of the first and second record respectively, it’s the drum that takes centre stage here, augmented by greater use of synth and Nate’s growing prowess as a bassist. She also decided to launch her third album with a homemade ‘MegaMix’ of the record, posting it to her fans online on her birthday; "I've put together a mash-up so you can get a tiny taste. We really can't wait to play this music for you. Thanks for all your support and patience while we cooked this chicken!".

With it’s its jump-rope-chant title, the brilliantly playful "Nikki Nack" continues the tUnE-yArDs story gloriously.

This year marks a significant anniversary for U.S. Girls, the protean musical enterprise of multi-disciplinary artist, Meg Remy. 10 years ago Remy first used a 4-track recorder and a microphone to self-produce a series of spontaneous, starkly musical, ‘instant expressions’. These collisions of static, clang and sung melody seem in retrospect like a uniquely American display of minimalism, an unmistakably feminine counterbalance to Nebraska or Rev & Vega’s early sonic confrontations. In contrast, her latest work for 4AD, In A Poem Unlimited, Remy’s 6th album and 2nd LP for the label, was painstakingly crafted in multiple studios by a creative cast of 20+ collaborators. Remy traverses an immediate and increasingly politicized vision over the course of this decade of work. And while U.S. Girls, denoting the plural, is no longer a misnomer, In A Poem Unlimited may be Remy’s most individually distilled protest to date.

Opening with a dark, conga-infused drum break, lead-off track ‘Velvet For Sale’ establishes a moody, distinctly mysterious feel. If Half Free (Remy’s 2015 4AD offering) trafficked in dusty, sample-based textures, Poem represents an inversion of that instrumental formula; the non-sampled rhythms are themselves eminently sample-able. The newfound grooviness speaks to a central element of the new
album’s collaborative spirit. All tracks save for two were performed by The Cosmic Range, an accomplished instrumental collective from Toronto, Remy’s adoptive hometown. Assembled by Matthew Dunn in 2014, The Cosmic Range is composed of some of Canada’s most accomplished
improvisers, and includes longtime U.S. Girls producer / foil Maximilian ‘Twig’ Turnbull. The Range--whose eclectic combination of improvised psych, jazz, and propulsive dance music was first recorded on their 2016 New Latitudes debut (Idée Fixe)--is put to work here on a song cycle that is typically diverse for a U.S. Girls album. Remy is not content merely to establish a new sonic palette on successive albums. Instead she approaches each song as its own encapsulation, with the effect that her oeuvre is essentially genre-agnostic. On Poem, the buffet of sounds comprises a dizzying variety: disco, employed as a protest vernacular (‘Mad As Hell’), as well as an unrelenting assault (‘Time’);
Remy’s beat-driven impulse, extended via The Cosmic Range’s vamping on hip hop producer Louis Percival’s produced loops (‘Incidental Boogie’ & ‘Pearly Gates’); moody, slow-burning funk, on the Twig co-writes (‘Velvet 4 Sale’ & ‘L-Over’); and forming the emotional core of the album, two earnest synth anthems, written in collaboration with D.C. based instrumentalist, Rich Morel (‘Rosebud’ & ‘Poem’).
As hectic as the stylistic detours may sound on paper, Remy and mixer / co-producer Steve Chahley will a consistent aesthetic into being, however multi-dimensional. With a voice as assured and engaged as Remy’s, track to track, one sees that genre-partisanship, in the contemporary music landscape, represents an irrelevantly conservative approach. The artist is intent on liberation both sonically and lyrically.
Poem features dark meditations reflecting charged atmospheres that directly precede and follow acts of
violence. Many of the songs are character studies of women grappling with power; how to gain and exert it spiritually, as well as desperate strategies to mitigate its infliction. In ‘Pearly Gates’ a woman ingeniously decides to seduce St. Peter to assure heavenly entrance, to mixed effect, while in ‘Incidental Boogie’, a battered woman muses ironically that her partner’s abuse leaves so little physical evidence she can continue to show up at her job. Almost all of Remy’s lyrics seem to interrogate notions of morality, and the universal consequence of its deferment. As has so long been suggested in the artist’s work, action and inaction both have broad civic consequences. There is no escaping that the personal is entrenched in a political dimension and an acknowledgement of that may be the only liberator.

In an era of heightened turmoil, artists contend with a crossroads decision on cultural content, and how we engage with it as individuals. There is no shortage of media that lends distraction and offers a balm of comforting fantasy. For those, on the other hand, craving a thoughtful and probing inquiry into the iniquity of power, In A Poem Unlimited poses a substantial question; can you dance while you think?

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