Screaming Females have been something of a hit-or-miss band. Okay, so their misses have never been far off the mark, it’s just most of their records lose focus from time to time. In many ways that comes with the territory of crafting blistering punk rock, because it’s a messy genre that requires creative execution to avoid becoming repetitive. Kudos do go to Screaming Females for nicely fleshing out their sound over their last couple albums, moving further away from their namesake description and into a more melodic and structured direction. It’s gone a long way towards giving the band depth many thought they never had without sacrificing their intensity or killer guitar work. And though their name is plural, the trio only has one female member in frontwoman/lead guitarist Marissa Paternoster. She’s a one woman wrecking ball though, with the personality and skill of about three people. Bassist King Mike and drummer Jarrett Dougherty do their best to stay out of her way both on record and on stage, which is the smart move to make. That’s not to say they aren’t useful or essential members of the band. They provide the framework upon which Paternoster builds her kingdom, and my what a kingdom it is. Thanks to their fifth album Ugly, they’re more in control than ever of their sound and destiny.
By most accounts, Screaming Females are only adding to the legend that is Steve Albini. The guy has made some legendary punk records on his own the last couple decades, but these days he seems to be the go-to guy for bands looking for that gritty, yet clean-cut sound. He somehow knows just the right amount of polish to add so there’s a faint glimmer sparkling beneath the mud. Cloud Nothings earned the Albini treatment earlier this year with their record Attack on Memory, and for all the complaining they’ve done about the guy since, the album is one of the best 2012 has to offer so far. Screaming Females have yet to go on an anti-Albini rant, but from the way that Ugly turned out, they won’t have any reason to. Of course it helps greatly the band’s music is well in line with Albini’s producing style, as there are plenty of examples where the opposite is true and things don’t go so smoothly. Paternoster’s guitar and vocals are front and center, exactly where they need to be, but without losing the spiky bass lines or intense drumming in the process.
Paternoster shares a lot of qualities with Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney/Wild Flag/Portlandia fame. Not only do the two share similar hairstyles and complexions, but they’re musical soulmates too. The intense, menacing voice of Paternoster matched with her equally fierce guitar playing are unique qualities held by very few but very talented musicians, Brownstein being key among them. For those upset with Sleater-Kinney’s hiatus just as they were churning out some of the best punk rock of their careers, Screaming Females do quite the incredible job filling that void. It was almost kismet the way S-K went on hiatus in 2006, the same year Screaming Females self-released their debut album. Feel free to argue in favor of Wild Flag being the heir apparent to S-K’s crown instead, given that Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss are principal members. What Wild Flag lacks is the same attack dog mentality and sheer intensity of S-K, though there are flashes of it from time to time on their debut album. Screaming Females absolutely have those qualities, and they’ve never been more potent than on Ugly.
The main shift the band has made on this new album is directly towards commercial accessibility. It’s a matter of focus, really, not to mention the skill required to come up with dynamic hooks. Ugly is filled to the brim with those, the choruses slamming you time and time again until you can’t help but get them trapped in your head. If anything, this album suffers from a glut of catchy songs, and the way they overlap one another is a small cause for alarm. The charm of “It All Means Nothing” is slightly dulled by how “Rotten Apple” forces its way into your brain immediately afterwards. The crunchy 90’s rock of “Crow’s Nest” is tossed aside as soon as “Tell Me No” races past the starting line. There are certainly worse problems to have, and of course one of the good things about it is that different things will jump out at you after each listen. So you may not become addicted to “Red Hand” the first 10 times through, but it’ll finally hit you on the 11th. There are a few moments that genuinely stand out on their own every single time though, and that’s mostly because they offer some variation compared to the rest of the record. “Leave It All Up to Me” goes a little heavier than some of the other songs, and playfully dissolves into nearly nothing before building itself back up again for one more run at the chorus. Closing track “It’s Nice” comes as described actually, a complete 360 from the rest of the record, bringing in acoustic guitars and a full string section for a grandiose moment of beauty. After all the grime and riffs from the prior 13 tracks and 51 minutes, here’s a final respite that proves this band can do more than rock out with their pseudo cocks out.
If Ugly has a piece de resistance, it comes in the form of the 7.5 minute dirge “Doom 84”. The riffs are heavy and intense enough to rival some of Zeppelin’s finest work, and the solos in the middle of the song are head-bangingly good. If you want to know exactly why Screaming Females are so impressive and ballsy, this is the song that will fully sell you on the idea. How they’re able to fill the track with so much noise it hurts while only being a spare three-piece is a mystery for the ages. That sentiment could be applied to the entire record, actually. Whatever their methods, the band and this album go a long way towards proving that rock and roll isn’t anywhere close to being dead. In fact, it’s quite alive and kicking. Ugly might not be a life-changing record or even the best record of a still-young 2012, but it’s huge for Screaming Females. After languishing for the last few years as underground punk rock heroes with a mindblowing live show, here’s proof they’re truly ready for the spotlight. Now it’s up to us to shine it in their direction.