Utilising music as a vessel by which to convey ideological qualms is a fraught territory — for every effortlessly engaging To Pimp a Butterfly there's the dry didactic nature of Pure Comedy. On the evidence of U.S Girls & Shitkid at the Hare & Hounds last Thursday, it seems that baring personal responses to the political is the only way to reliably navigate such lyrical ground.
By presenting their feminine viewpoints in an unadulterated fashion, the human cost of insidious oppression was not only felt, but paradoxically enjoyed. Whether hidden in sugarcoated servings or pummelled down the audience's throat with vindicated aggression, the personal narrative shone throughout.
Kicking off the evening, Shitkid served up the sort of sonic palette you'd expect from such a simultaneously acerbic and infantile name. Standing isolated amongst the instruments reserved for the monstrous ensemble set to follow her, Åsa Söderqvist's Fisher Price-esque piano chords and reaching vocals communicated a raw embrace of vulnerability. Though the pacing shifted up a gear when she was later joined on stage by her huskier voiced bandmate, this initial solitary framing spoke to a youthful yearning for independence and the loneliness this can entail.
Even before the stage was populated following Shitkid’s departure, the throwback aesthetic of US Girls’ latest iteration was self-evident. Vintage Fender amps the size of bulky briefcases framed a simplistic drum kit, as a near comically small saxophone lay to one side.
To reduce Meghan Romy's outfit to kitsch contrivance is unfair, but when accompanied by the clean 70s threads of each band member a regressive, woozy tone was induced. On record, US Girls' work manages to be dense without feeling overcrowded, and in a live environment it was no different. Cohesion of appearance aside, this was a slickly composed outfit orbiting a central figure who handled her delivery with the steely-eyed composure befitting someone five albums into an illustrious career.
But such steeled eyes bely the internal schism that permeates Romy's work. Whether it was through the bombastic disappointment of 'M.A.H.' or the sombre stomp of 'Sororal Feelings', Romy continually jived through her worst personal regrets and grievances. Lit largely in red with a dappled blue lighting playing across her shoulders, there was a simmering brimstone behind each of her actions on stage.
Buoying this was a touring band-led re-instrumentation of Romy’s music — those expecting a studio-esque iteration of her latest record were sure to be perturbed. Backed by seven other musicians — In a Poem Unlimited was written with over twenty different collaborators after all — the atmosphere was that of a cacophonous New York jazz outfit, as each swell of the sax and the wah-wah guitars was coyly reciprocated by the twin female vocals.
This simmering became particularly prominent in the gulf between numbers, as Romy near mimed her way through a series of excruciating and hopeful facial expressions. Most surprising of all, there was no traditional communication with the audience. Jibes from the crowd resulted in a confused frown, her own twisting of an errant knob a quiver of delayed delight, and a half-held faded note a sense of something fleeting lost. If each new form Romy took on was potentially contrived it was also highly emotive, indicating the wealth of expression that delivering such potent tomes requires.
Throughout this performance the audience was positioned as both invasive and inclusive. We experienced Romy's world as callous observer and mutual sympathiser in equal measure, held at a degree of remove even as her inflammatory lyrics practically begged you to storm the stage.
In one of the aforementioned breaks, a looped sound bite span several times, with the words "I would really encourage you to not tell women what to do" allowed to ring out with no accompaniment. Hand fixed to her head, Romy stared at the crowd with a mix of imploring inquisition, and detached humour. Whether we were on trial or in cahoots was unclear, but it's perhaps telling that Romy's version of a stage dive was to nestle into the crowd (minus microphone) and wile out with those assembled.
At certain points the performance even extended to the dual female singers sharing scathing looks at the quite wonderful solos as performed by the surrounding male musicians, the meanings of which could only be inferred in each passing moment. It's rare to see such a wholesome commitment to performance, and such a wilful utilisation of the various players on stage. Narrative and acting have become dirty words in the pursuit of so-called musical realism, but through the visual expression of thematics, US Girls became something quite unlike their forebears. Everything was reimagined in this space, and everything came out undistilled. Ugly truths have never been so rhythmic