It’s not an original sentiment, but I do admit to a pretty intense nostalgia for the 1990s. As a relative latecomer to the worlds of music and culture that have largely occupied my life since the ‘90s, my obsession with that decade doesn’t have much to do with how I actually experienced it and more to do with the ‘90s culture I’ve discovered during the past twelve years. The music of Sleater-Kinney, Dinosaur Jr, and in general the college rock of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s have all been discoveries of the last decade for me, which perhaps isn’t saying a lot as I’m 26 and, like I said, a bit of a pop culture late bloomer. The punk-influenced do-it-yourself work ethic and raw sound central to the most compelling American underground music scenes is what’s kept me coming back to the work of my favourite ‘90s bands again and again, and this latest offering by New Brunswick, New Jersey’s Screaming Females incites the same kind of enthusiasm in me. The trio, comprising Marissa Paternoster on guitar and vocals, King Mike on bass, and Jarrett Dougherty on drums, has a sound that’s undoubtedly reminiscent of some of those ‘90s music scenes and their bands, but in an unselfconscious, un-ironic way. Basically, Screaming Females just rock really hard and really well, without sacrificing melodic sensibility or losing any (essential, in my opinion) personality-giving weirdness.
It’s this weirdness – I refuse to call it quirkiness – that could make their sound a bit polarising. It primarily comes in the form of Paternoster’s voice, a strident thing that morphs from restrained and rather nasal to snarling growl to full-throated shriek in the space of a phrase. I adore it, and I think it’s great that her vocals are featured more prominently on Ugly than on its predecessor, Castle Talk. This is underpinned by some classic power trio musicianship that shows off Paternoster’s other awesome skill: her impressive guitar playing. Seriously, her guitar work is amazing, but more importantly, it’s infectiously fun and energetic. Rolling off deliciously catchy riffs as well as tons of powerful and expressive solos on song after song is no small feat, particularly on an album of this length (over 50 minutes).
Ugly opens with the awesome “It All Means Nothing.” Paternoster’s captivating guitar work is apparent right from the get go, squealing and doing its own thing while she sneeringly and sarcastically goes on about a soured relationship. It showcases the band’s strengths really well and as such makes a fitting opener. What stands out for me about this track is that it satisfies my craving for heavier, guitar-led sounds and is still unabashedly sunny. “Rotten Apple” has got a bit of manic bounce to its guitar lines and a giddy refrain in which Paternoster just repeats “I’m a rotten apple” in her charmingly nasal whine. As do most of these tracks, it features a guitar solo, but this one in particular smacks of contagious fun.
“Expire” also stands out on this collection for its surf-inflected riff and ska-reminiscent laid back delivery. The restraint of the verses is relieved by the all-in power of the refrain that’s counteracted yet again by an interval of soft ooohs while the guitar, bass, and drums work out a hypnotically rhythmic figure. “Tell Me No” gets a bit messier, guitar-wise, and rattles along at a pretty breakneck speed. It lets up slightly just before the halfway point for an austere interlude of unusual minor intervals before a haunting guitar solo, but then it’s right back to (admittedly, very well organized) chaos. The slower groove of “Leave It All Up to Me” is satisfying, as is Paternoster’s voice multi-tracked and harmonizing with itself over steady stabs of guitar and drums. In my opinion, the album’s highlight is the seven-and-a-half minute slab of stoner rock that is “Doom 84.” Here Screamales get heavier than they do on the rest of Ugly and it suits them: the riffs are bigger and more memorable, they hit their groove with ferocity, and, perhaps most importantly, after several minutes of guitar noodling and a vocal bridge, at the point when they come back in again with that riff, the pure head-banging relief of it is dizzying.
“Something Ugly” begins with a guitar build-up that’s like a motor revving, giving way to perhaps their most punk-influenced song, complete with staccato guitar licks and flourished with fizzy bursts of cymbal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Paternoster’s alternating growl and exuberant yeah yeah yeahs work particularly well here against a backdrop of simultaneous snotty teenage disdain and insecurity. “It’s Nice” closes the album on, depending on how you feel about the preceding thirteen songs and their unabated energy, either a much-needed sweet and slow note or a disappointingly saccharine let down. I tend towards the former reaction, and I think Screamales do mellow acoustic pretty well. Again, considering the length and constant exuberance of the rest of Ugly, it’s a treat to hear a different side of them.
It’s probably not a surprise that ‘90s alt-rock hero Steve Albini was on board for Ugly as producer. This is their fifth album, after all, and with Screamales’ unique take on ‘90s-influenced, punk-inflected rock, they were probably both due for and highly deserving of a big name producer like that to help realize their sound. The sound on Ugly isn’t a departure from that on their previous albums, but Screaming Females seem to have hit their stride here pretty perfectly, with melody balancing guitar histrionics, accessibility countering artistic integrity, and of course, a kind of raw and breathless beauty offsetting some occasional ugliness.
Ugly is out now and available on Don Giovanni Records.