Graded on a Curve:
Screaming Females,
Ugly

Through the course of four albums, New Brunswick, NJ’s Screaming Females has grown into one of the most interesting and promising young rock bands on the scene. Heavy, distinctive, and featuring a legitimate guitar-hero in Marissa Paternoster, their latest record is called Ugly. Not only does it lack any signs of creative fatigue, it’s easily their best one yet.

The profile of Screaming Females has increased significantly in the last few years, and that’s almost completely down to the band’s hard work; they’ve played hundreds of shows since 2005, the majority naturally taking place in the expected locales of clubs, halls, and music spaces. But quite a few of these gigs have also occurred in the basements of houses, their hometown lacking in the required amount of venues conducive to the Females’ ground-level punk-inspired sensibility. If your town doesn’t have enough stages to hold the presentation and growth of your thing, taking it to the basement is just what you do.

And with the release of Ugly, the group now has five full-lengths under their collective belt in just a smidge over six years, a circumstance that pretty much paints them as shameless busybodies, at least in contemporary rock terms. For some icing on the cake, Screaming Females are a trio, a power trio in fact; they excel in an environment where hard work is very much a given.

But from within the confines of their sound, it’s the galvanizing combo of Marissa Paternoster’s vocals and guitar that is clearly responsible for the band’s increased following. Once heard, she’s not likely to be soon forgotten. This is not a knock on bassist King Mike or drummer Jarrett Dougherty (there’s only one actual female in Screaming Females); both are a far sight more than just capable on their instruments, the pair quite adept at transcending the standards of a mere rhythm section, which is another element of the power trio that’s an absolute necessity. But with this said Paternoster is essentially the focal point of the band’s attack; her vocal delivery has been likened to that of Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker and her guitar playing has drawn comparisons to J Mascis. To put it mildly these are big shoes to fill, and Paternoster does so not through calculated imitation but by forging ahead with nerve and impressive dedication to her craft.

Screaming Females have been called a punk band, and while that’s not a terribly inapt description, I do think they’re most appropriately described by the above nomenclature of punk-inspired. To put it another way, the band is definitely descended from the aggressive template of punk rock. What’s more their dedication to those basement gigs and allegiance to their local “scene” in lieu of moving to a more rock-centric city (New York is just a hop, skip and train ride away), when coupled with a tireless if appealingly offhand work ethic is easily identifiable as punk in attitude. But to simply call Screaming Females a punk band might erroneously suggest a focus on the rudimentary, and while not a overly complex unit inclined toward flash for flash’s sake, they are frankly too accomplished as a unit to be comfortably labeled with the potentially misleading descriptor of unhyphenated punk.

Instead, Screaming Females are in league with the distinctive (and yes quite punk-informed) underground rock of the 1980s, a place where power trios flourished; think Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, and indeed Dinosaur Jr. The Females don’t sound like the ‘men or Dü, but they share with those bands an anti-generic non-simplicity that was a step beyond the “anybody can do it” back-to-square-one ethos of punk rock. And if Paternoster’s guitar brings Mascis to mind (and it does, though she’s just as remindful of Eddie Van Halen), the music as a whole isn’t very suggestive of ol’ Dino. It’s really in the comparison to Corin Tucker that we cozy up to a direct point of reference for Screaming Females, specifically a heavy, liberating post-Riot Grrl vibe. It’s not a bit of a stretch to say the band’s entire discography could’ve easily fit into the release schedule of the fledgling Kill Rock Stars label.

Ugly was recorded with Steve Albini, a connection that’s almost become a rite of passage for bands specializing in this type of unabashed rock action. And since Ugly shapes up as Screaming Females’ best platter, it’s tempting to credit Albini as a large factor in the album’s success. That is, if the previous four discs hadn’t already established an uncommonly astute hand at record making. For many bands (particularly of this heavy inclination), a succession of releases can risk becoming something of an indistinguishable or interchangeable blur, which might be okey-dokey for fans satisfied with hearing one thing done extremely well, but it’s also undeniable that more casual listeners will be far less inclined to go back for a double dip. But in the case of the Females, each record holds traits that clearly define their stylistic progression; Baby Teeth is their strong if modest debut, What if Someone is Watching Their TV? finds them at their angriest and most shredding, Power Move displays real songwriting growth, and Castle Talk finds them nodding at times toward pop-punk.

Ugly continues this practice of stylistic development, not only flaunting their boldest production sound but also finding them branching out in both song-length (“Doom 84” clocks in at 7:38) and album running time. These admirable aspects aside, Ugly’s success can almost entirely be credited to the uniformly high level of songwriting and the seamless rapport between the players. Paternoster is indeed the focal point, but her talents are surely greatly enhanced by the fluid familiarity that’s bloomed between all three principals.

The one aspect of Screaming Females’ sound that is undeniably punk in both intent and execution is the sheer hugeness of Paternoster’s vocals. Punk in intent because she possesses a tough take-it-or-leave-it quality, and punk in execution due to the sheer lack of prettification in her delivery; she’s not trying to sooth or tempt. Instead, she’s interested in shaking and stirring things up. As Ugly plays for the umpteenth time, I can’t help but think of her as a modern disciple of Patti Smith, and that’s because she’s so thoroughly invested in doing her own thing.

If there’s anything troubling in Ugly, it’s in the likelihood that it’s going to be a hard act to follow. However, closing track “It’s Nice” features Paternoster’s vocals and acoustic guitar accompanied by a string section that alternates between sinewy and lush. The sheer unexpectedness of this finale is quite welcome, and it’s a possible harbinger of rewarding developments in the band’s future. Here’s hoping.

With Ugly, Screaming Females have not only set themselves a lofty standard, but they’ve also placed the bar quite high for contemporary-minded power trio rock in general. Anybody curious over the current rock scene’s state of health should lend them an ear.

Graded on a Curve: A

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