The music created by U.S. Girls (the recording moniker of Meghan Remy) has always used a very specific palette of sounds: muffled vocals, sludgy static, droning keyboards and hollow drums. But save for a few exceptions – such as her loopy, theatrical take on the Brandy/Monica classic ’90s jam “The Boy is Mine” – Remy’s unsettled noise sculptures haven’t typically boasted much defined direction or structural clarity. GEM, U.S. Girls’ fourth album, changes that: Although Remy again worked with long-time collaborator Slim Twig, the record boasts higher production values and focused arrangements. “Rosemary” feels like an outtake from Gary Numan’s The Pleasure Principle, what with its alien analog synths and Remy’s wavering trills, while “Work From Home” is full of brittle, hypnotizing plinking keyboards.
This fidelity boost coincides with a boost in songwriting quality. “Down in the Boondocks” is kitschy, retro-flavored tropical pop, while the piano-based “North On 45″ and glammy squeal “Jack” resembles David Bowie circa Hunky Dory. Even the instrumental “He Who” – on which mourning piano and a spare drum machine trade melancholic barbs – and the murky, ambient atmospherics of “Another Color” are painstakingly detailed.
If anything, though, GEM reflects Remy’s confidence as a vocalist. On many songs, her voice – which resembles Zola Jesus without the operatic tendencies – is pushed to the forefront and is distortion-free, producing some memorable highlights; for instance, on “Work From Home,” Remy hollers at the top of her range like a ’60s soul belter. While in the past much of U.S. Girls’ charm came from its lo-fi tendencies and DIY attitude, GEM‘s brighter sound is a welcome step forward.