Most people assume Screaming Females is an ironic band name, and that makes perfect sense; it has a goofy cadence to it that would appeal to a too-cool band of hubristic boys. The New Jersey trio does, however, include a female, one who has a tendency to scream, and the relative truth of the moniker is proof that they’re not screwing around. In the past six years the band has churned out album after album of uncluttered, confrontational rock music, matching their prolific output with a frenetic live act.
Around the release of their third record, “Power Move,” I saw the group open for the Dead Weather in a larger venue in New York. Though their reputation has been built on playing local basement shows, the Screamales had no trouble working a much larger crowd. Diminutive frontwoman Marissa Paternoster howled, stumbled and then tore through blistering guitar solos that could make hair-metal fanatics blush. It was a wonder they weren’t the main attraction, but the band’s growing reputation from such higher-profile shows has increasingly afforded them press.
Their latest, “Ugly,” out last week, may be the ignition of the group’s stardom. Benefiting from an association with indie stalwart Steve Albini, whose minimalist production style has informed much of modern guitar rock, “Ugly” is nonetheless unremarkable in terms of sonics; its direct approach functions nearly identically to previous Screaming Female releases. I’m starting to believe the stories that Albini plays Scrabble on Facebook during recording sessions.
The undistinguished production still properly serves the music, however, and the straight-to-the-brain sound lays bare the place of “Ugly” in the group’s discography — this is their least outrÃ©, and thereby most audacious, record yet. Backing off from Paternoster’s more abrasive screamer vocals and reducing the previous stylistic insanity, the release distills the talent and energy a wider audience should be embracing about Screaming Females.
Opener and first single “It All Means Nothing” immediately summarizes the successes of “Ugly.” The song is laid out in disarming clarity, with King Mike’s strident bass on the left channel and Paternoster’s guitar on the right, a system that continues throughout the album. Time is pounded out unrepentantly by Jarrett Dougherty; there are some esoteric lyrical moments; more of those tantalizing riffs blitz the song’s middle. Despite the usual blandness of grungy mid-tempo rock tracks, “It All Means Nothing” is endlessly repayable. It functions almost as a welcome mat, a comfortable but uncompromising entrance to the Screamales‘ power-punk.
“Rotten Apple” also stands out as a quintessential statement of the band’s style and attitude; wild guitar matches Paternoster’s bratty declaration that she’s a rotten apple herself. She makes a vague lyrical allusion to heads rolling, but specificity isn’t terribly important to understand her violent message, or the glee she seems to exude in proclaiming it.
Ugly”, though a more focused effort, does meander somewhat. “Red Hand” and “5 High” have a Clash-like feel, rooted in respective reggae and Latin sounds, while “Doom 84” is a seven-minute-plus hair-metal shuffle. “It’s Nice” drops everything but an acoustic guitar and Paternoster’s powerful voice, taking a much softer perspective on her talents. The most important thing about these departures, what sets them apart from previous Screamales album cuts, is that they fit much more closely the signature sound the group is cultivating.
At 14 tracks, the album’s only weakness is its length. By the ninth song, “Leave It All Up to Me,” it’s already made its statement clear. That track, a triumphant stomp with a huge vocal harmony, is like a victory lap that makes the back third seem almost redundant. The group wants their first heavily scrutinized release to carry, I understand that. I just think “Ugly” only needs 10 tracks to get its point across — Screaming Females are awesome, and are only getting better.