Friday, May 25, 2012

Album Review: Screaming Females - Ugly

God bless New Jersey for not letting the world forget about the second word in the phrase when we talk about "indie rock". In recent years bands from the Garden State such as Titus AndronicusVivian Girls, The Gaslight Anthem (since lost to New York) and Screaming Females have started making noise (both figurative and literal) and reminding people that, while alternative music will always need it's weirdos, nerds and mopers, the modern indie scene was built on a foundation of loud, angry bands creating music both intelligent AND visceral. While perhaps garnering the least amount of critical and popular success of any of the bands mentioned, Screaming Females have quietly put out more top-quality music in the last five years than any of them and show no signs of slowing down.

When I say "quietly", I'm perhaps projecting my own ignorance onto others a bit, having only gotten on board with the band after the release of their 2010 album Castle Talk, which saw them settling into a rich, expansive songwriting groove that they've only deepened and widened on Ugly. Coming up in the New Brunswick basement scene, they fought for every ounce of their success, growing in talent and stature in no small part due to their tremendous work ethic. Since forming in 2006 they've released five albums in six years, not to mention a string of singles all while playing regularly both nationally and within their local scene. It's an impressive history, made all the more so because they have managed toi consistently improve with each release and tour. Their blue-collar approach speaks well of them and lends their music additional (perhaps even unnecessary) pathos.

Screaming Females' aesthetic has always been a bit grimy and grotesque with album art and band merch always reveling in difficult or slightly skewed imagery but their sound is another matter. They've gotten a lot of buzz for bringing in Steve Albini and his abrasive lo-fi fetishism to man the board for this outing but what they've made here sounds nothing like bracing sonic assaults of Big Black or Shellac. Hell, this doesn't even touch Surfer Rosa in terms of abrasiveness. Albini has turned into a famously hands-off producer in recent years and his willingness to let Marissa and company keep their sound relatively clean on this album must be applauded. What Ugly sounds like isn't a sonic assault but rather a refinement of a trio explosive enough to blow the roof off the place but also talented and smart enough to that they don't have to do it every song. Indeed, the whole "ugly" concept here strikes me as the band doth protesting a bit too much even as songs like "Rotten Apple", "Something Ugly" and "Extinction" play with the idea of distortion and decay.

The years of touring have clearly turned the Females into a razor-sharp power trio the likes of which we haven't seen since the Pharmacists added a second guitarist. However, rather than just bashing it out and relying on muscle and energy to carry the music across, the band is now increasingly willing to play with pacing, vocals and emotion. The songs are still air-tight but they're also subtle. Of course, Paternoster's guitar will get a lot of the credit for their success and rightfully so. Often compared to J. Macias or Carrie Bowenstein, I hear a lot of Ted Leo's amp'd up Thin Lizzy style in her playing. Her guitar is used not just for volume or hooks but just as often for texture and less-obvious accents. 

But it's not just the acrobatic lead guitar that makes this album such a showcase. Paternoster's vocals are just as distinctive, as she dips up, down and across notes seemingly at random. It creates an occasionally-jarring but more often intriguing effect, throwing a curveball into seemingly every song that makes you want to immediately go back and re-listen to see exactly what she did. Her band mates, bassist King Mike and drummer Jarrett Dougherty aren't to be forgotten either, with Mike reigning in his more Animal-like tendencies without losing his vitality and Dougherty's bass carrying a far heavier melodic and load than most indie four-stringers could bear. 

All this allows Screaming Females to release their most diverse album to date. "Something Ugly", "Tell Me No" or any of the first three songs pack the power-pop-punk wallop the group's earned their spurs refining but that's just scratching the surface. Paternoster shows some more Carrie Brownstein influence, this time from Wild Flag in extended classic rock-inspired outings like "Doom 84" and "Leave It All Up To Me" that would have sounded right at home next to "Glass Tambourine" or "Racehorse". There's even a (GASP!) acoustic entry here, "It's Nice" which lives up to its name. 

However, if you want to see proof-positive of the band's new-found confidence and abilities, listen to "Help Me". The guitar starts out fluid, adds a little distorted crunch and even settles into menacing palm-muted strumming as needed. It skips across the song, alternately falling in with and running alongside the rhythm section. Paternoster's singing is powerful but more restrained that it might have been a few years ago, which lends the desperate lyrics all the more power. Like the band that wrote it, the song is an un-flashy but undeniable show-stopper.

On this, her fifth album in six years, Marissa Paternoster may have been aiming for filthy punk, but it would seem that at this point her and her band's talent and hard-won experience have made it impossible to limit the outcome to something that constricting. Instead of playing ugly, she ended up somewhere between ass-kicking and entrancing.

Rotten Apple
Help Me
Something Ugly
Buy Ugly on vinyl or via download.

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