We could see this coming: the latest U.S. Girls album, Gem, is clearly an attempt to reach a wider audience. While this can often be a bad thing, in the case of U.S. Girls, a.k.a. Megan Remy, this is actually a lateral move. Remy’s first two albums on the noise-leaning label Siltbreeze, Introducing… and Go Grey, were full of unabashedly low-fidelity, agoraphobic, pathologically shy bedroom studio noodlings. An imminent change could be sensed on last year’s U.S. Girls on Kraak and the split album with Slim Twig, and now with Gem, on the British FatCat label, the differences are clear: the hooks are more conspicuous, there’s almost no noise-love, and there’s less of a sense of mystery with less fuzzy, normal-fidelity recordings. However, also, Remy sounds less uncertain and amateurish.
One constant is Remy’s singing voice, which still sounds like a Ronnie Spector impersonation. Perhaps the biggest surprise on Gem is an unmistakable affinity for early ‘70s glam rock (a la Marc Bolan and T. Rex) on the tracks “Jack” and “Slim Baby,” and one can detect a bit of new wave love on the number “Rosemary.” Remy revisits the song “Don’t Understand That Man” originally released on her first album, and the new version isn’t as sonically lonely and unsettling. Perhaps the most accessible moment is a cover of “Down in the Boondocks,” which is a mostly straightforward cover, even copying the insistent hi-hat taps of the original, but there are odd tweaks, including off-kilter backing vocals and a haunting middle section with a drum breakdown and Vibraslap percussion. The sole, clear reference to Remy’s past experimental work is “Curves,” which features a rhythm box on maximum speed and echoing samples of British-accented dialogue. The mantra of the typical insufferable music snob is “The early stuff is better,” but in the case of U.S. Girls, the early stuff was wildly inconsistent and sometimes unfocused; the new U.S. Girls is different—a little more engaging, yet much less weird and eerie.
Wadada Leo Smith
Ten Freedom Summers
Offhand, veteran avant-garde trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s new release Ten Freedom Summers may seem like a stunt; with over four hours of material, it’s an attempt to musically document the long and extremely thorny American Civil Rights Movement. It is simultaneously sprawling and cohesive, being modeled after the ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle by playwright August Wilson, about the 20th century Black experience and influenced by similar statements by jazz artists such as Duke Ellington and Max Roach.
The album centers on the titular decade of 1954-1964, book-ended by Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it also provides sonic portraits of key figures, such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.. However, it also takes a more expansive approach to the core ideas, and in the liner notes, Smith states that “…the struggle for justice is an essential part of the story of America.” This explains the inclusion of tracks like the somber “September 11th, 2011: A Memorial” and “Buzzsaw: The Myth of a Free Press,” apparently inspired by the media exposé Into the Buzzsaw, featuring impassioned double bass and drum solos.
Smith wrote the first piece for Ten Freedom Summers in 1977, about the assassinated civil rights activist Medgar Evers, and it’s a fascinating composition with flute and viola highlights, percussion bursts, an unpredictable spirit and stark atmosphere, and a turbulent ending. On “Emmet Till: Defiant, Fearless,” Smith provides long, clear trumpet tones, expressing a sense of resolve, contrasted with a Ligeti-esque dissonance in other parts. Over the four discs, Smith uses two different ensembles; his Golden Quartet/Quintet (featuring either drummer Pheeroan akLaff or Susie Ibarra, or both) plays avant-garde jazz, while the L.A.-based Southwest Chamber Music is used for more orchestral pieces. The first disc alone is strong enough to be considered one of the finest jazz albums of the year, but all together, stunt or not, Ten Freedom Summers is abundant and overwhelming, with tremendous emotional resonance for subjects with complicated histories.