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Album Review: Screaming Females – Ugly [Don Giovanni]

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.

Screaming Females – It All Means Nothing

Buy Ugly from Amazon

Show Review: Mister Heavenly + Screaming Females [Lincoln Hall; Chicago; 1/14/11]

It takes a lot of courage to buy a ticket to a show from a band that you haven’t heard one note from. Of course the comfort level is automatically increased if you know the band is comprised of members whose musical talents you trust. In the fall of 2009, I willingly purchased a ticket to see a little band now known as Them Crooked Vultures at their very first show ever. Nobody knew what kind of product the combination of Josh Homme, Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones would produce, but it turned out to be the start of something great. It was with that same shaky confidence that I made the decision to go see Mister Heavenly on Friday night. Unlike Them Crooked Vultures though, Mister Heavenly have already played a small handful of shows, all of which resulted in a whole lot of press coverage thanks to their very special guest on bass, the perennial awkward teen known as Michael Cera. But Cera had nothing to do with the formation of Mister Heavenly, nor is he an “official” member of the band. What makes this band attention worthy even without a celebrity presence is the collaboration between three great indie talents that are already well known in their own rights. Nick Diamonds is best known for his work as part of the band Islands and, formerly, The Unicorns. Honus Honus is better known as the frontman for the wild group Man Man. Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer helps to make this trio complete. The original intention was to just put together a one-off 7-inch instrumental single, but once the creative juices got flowing, an entire album poured out. As it was revealed at the show on Friday, that album will be released by Sub Pop this September (tentatively). Coincidentally though, Mister Heavenly chose to release their first two songs ever just hours before they were set to take the stage in Chicago. Outside of some rough YouTube videos filmed on some earlier tour dates, this was the first legitimate glimpse into the band’s material, which up until then bore only the description of a new genre called “doom-wop”. In a nutshell, it is intended to combine the classic doo-wop melodies with the tragic tales that are doomed love songs. More on that and the show in a minute, but first let’s talk opening bands.

The Mister Heavenly show was yet another part of the 5-night festival called Tomorrow Never Knows. Earlier in the week I saw a bill that included Lia Ices, Frankie Rose and the Outs, and The Besnard Lakes. The idea behind the shows, which take place at a couple different venues around Chicago, is to give exposure to a number of up-and-coming artists. Aside from Mister Heavenly headlining on Friday night, the bill was also shared by New York band The Dig, former Q and Not U/Georgie James member John Davis performing under the name Title Tracks, and New Jersey underground female-fronted punk band Screaming Females. As I was spending time with friends, I missed the first two sets of the night, though I have heard and can recommend both The Dig and Title Tracks as bands worth checking out if you haven’t yet. But speaking exclusively about Screaming Females, whose set I saw all of, if you’re not aware of this trio, you need to jump on them quick. Frontwoman Marissa Paternoster is a one person wrecking ball, and all of us are standing in her way. If she doesn’t take you down with her immensely skilled guitar playing, she’ll do so with a scream so intense that a microphone isn’t needed to hear it across a crowded room. Mike Abbate’s bass work is almost equally as good, strongly recalling the highly melodic work of Green Day’s Mike Dirnt. He might consider that comparison to be insulting, but personally I think that Dirnt is among the top 10 bass players active today. Then there’s drummer Jarrett Dougherty, who completely wails on his kit with little regard for common decency. Put these three powerhouses together and it makes sense as to why Screaming Females are a band very much on the rise. That they’ve done so almost entirely on their own terms without much support save from their tiny label Don Giovanni Records is even more impressive. They don’t need a marketing team – the music and the live shows speak for themselves. Sonically, the band holds strong ties to Sleater-Kinney, as Paternoster’s guitar and vocals are remarkably Carrie Brownstein-esque. The energy, the outrage and the pure, unadultrated guitar solos have the ability to send shivers down your spine. That was the case right from the beginning of their set at Lincoln Hall, as the large crowd went from a state of calm to a fever pitch in a matter of minutes. There may not have been any mosh pits, as with the punk rock there certainly could have been, but the reaction in pure applause and cheering was testimony enough as to how well they were doing. To put it another way, Mister Heavenly had their work cut out for them after such an inspired set by Screaming Females.

A high degree of “jockeying for position” happened once Screaming Females walked off the stage. People were looking for the best vantage points, most likely in which to see Michael Cera, so there was a bit of pushing and shoving and mean looks being thrown around at the sheer annoyance of it all. Looking around at the crowd demographics, it was close to a 50-50 male/female spread. Given that most indie bands draw a much higher percentage of men over women, you kind of knew what everyone had shown up for: the bass player in Mister Heavenly. The crowd cheered wildly as all four guys walked out on stage, though there was a rather funny moment right before they launched into their first song where a small group of people gave a shout-out to Honus Honus. Earlier show reviews seemed to emphasize the distracting nature of having Michael Cera on stage with the rest of the band, saying that the crowds kept yelling quotes from his movies before, during, and between songs. While that did happen once or twice, including a, “Let Michael tell us a story!”, for the most part people were respectful of the music and cheered appropriately for the songs themselves and not any one thing in particular (the cameras, however, were an entirely different matter). Speaking of the songs, the band opened with their self-titled track “Mister Heavenly”, which was one of the two songs they had released for free earlier in the day. I was unable to download and listen to them prior to going to the show, but apparently a lot of people were, to the point where they already had the lyrics memorized. There were at least three people I saw surrounding me that sang along for all of that and the other just-released song “Pineapple Girl” later in the set. Celebrity influence or not, hopefully this band is going to make an impact. Their “doom-wop” sound is interesting to say the least, largely coming off as what it’d sound like if one guy from Islands and one guy from Man Man got together and had a 1950’s-era musical baby. So there’s a hook-riddled pop edge to the songs courtesy of Nick Diamonds that’s balanced out by the experimental and odd quirks Honus Honus brings to the table. It’s all held together by Joe Plummer’s almost equally strong presence behind the drum kit. Cera is a capable bass player, but given he’s not an official member of the band and didn’t record the debut album with them, most anybody with strong knowledge of the instrument could have jumped in and done an equally excellent job. Of course not anybody can deliver an awkward punchline quite the way Cera can, which meant that some stage banter revealed some extra amusing moments. A sample:
Nick Diamonds: Hey Mike, what’s your favorite cheese?
Michael Cera: My favorite cheese? Oh, well I’d have to go with Havarti. Does anybody here love Havarti cheese?
(crowd cheers loudly)
The band then plays another song. After the song…
Nick Diamonds: Hey Mike, what’s your favorite cheese?
Michael Cera: I Havarti told you once.
(cue rimshot)
Jokes don’t get much cleaner than that. Nicely played. But beyond corny jokes like that one, Both Nick Diamonds and Honus Honus tried to give the crowd some insight as to how they came up with certain song titles and lyrics. For example, the song “Diddy Eyes” is apparently about the basketball player Rolando Blackman and how, in a photo they saw of him, his eyes looked just like Diddy’s (or P. Diddy or Puff Daddy or Sean Combs or whatever name he’s going by these days). That’s a weird and funny thing to write a song about, though it does leave me wondering if they were just kidding when telling that story. Another song was written in reaction to a series of sniper shootings that were happening around New York at the time they were writing the album. “The shootings happened on a night just like this. In a room just like this. From very high up, just like the balcony in here,” Diamonds said, messing with us. Outside of playing most (if not all) the songs slated to appear on the Mister Heavenly debut album, the band also brought out a cover or two. They did “Bad Man” by The Oblivions about halfway through the set, and for their encore totally rocked out to The Misfits’ “Hybrid Moments”. That legitimately started a mosh pit courtesy of about 5-6 people, leaving everyone else annoyed at all the intense pushing and shoving going on. But it was a fun way to end the night, which was also Honus’ birthday, as revealed at the start of said encore. He was wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey too, so more power to him for that, as well as coming out and talking to people after the show. The same goes for Nick Diamonds, who I was able to chat with briefly before finally giving up thanks to so many people jumping in and interrupting. Among the information I was able to extract was that A) Honus and Diamonds shared songwriting duties on the Mister Heavenly debut album, tentatively scheduled for release in September and B) Diamonds returns to his main band Islands next month when they’ve got some studio time booked to make a new record. He’s got about 35 songs written and they plan on picking the best ones for the album before doing an Islands tour in the late summer/early fall. No official word on future Mister Heavenly tour plans, but it can be assumed they’ll be back on the road together around the album’s September release.

So overall it was a very fun night, with the wild and technically impressive Screaming Females playing alongside the highly amusing and pleasantly catchy throwback style of Mister Heavenly. Both were great for entirely different reasons, and both are absolutely worth seeing, though they’ll never play together again methinks. Separately though, check them out. The biggest hope that I have from the night is that it inspired some people just showing up to see Michael Cera in person to actually become invested in either Mister Heavenly or indie rock in general. If it takes a Hollywood star to get you into this type of music, then so be it. The more people we have listening to challenging artists and bands, the better off we’ll be as a society. Now then, check out more photos, the set list, and download two songs from Mister Heavenly after the jump (click on a photo to view a slightly larger version).

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