I did not mince words the last time I reviewed a Screaming Females record and I do not intend to mince them now. First off, Marissa Paternoster is the best guitar player playing guitar right now. Feel free to disagree with me, but do it on your own blog. Here at Bollocks! HQ (which, sadly, has been oft-neglected since I started grad school), we’re building statues of Marissa Paternoster and then using Screaming Females albums to blow them to bits. Because who has room for statues in their office?
But it’s not just Ms. Paternoster who makes the Screaming Females so fucking awesome. Drummer Jarrett Dougherty and bassist Michael Abbate make up a formidable (and underrated) rhythm section and the cumulative effect of the trio’s playing is, to borrow a phrase from “Doom 84,” “a sound that turns the mountains into sand.” As a band, they keep getting tighter (the intro to “Red Hand” is a sinister blast of dance/funk, like an awesome nightmare version of Franz Ferdinand), which goes a long way toward explaining why I’ve not been able to stop listening to their new album, Ugly, long enough to sit down and write about it.
Ugly was produced by Steve Albini, who shares my disdain of nostalgia (although my favorite quote about nostalgia comes not from Mr. Albini but from Don DeLillo, one of America’s best writers: “Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage. It’s a settling of grievances between the present and the past. The more powerful the nostalgia, the closer you come to violence. War is the form nostalgia takes when men are hard-pressed to say something good about their country.” You should read White Noise) and also said one of the funniest things I’ve ever read about Lady Gaga. Not that Steve Albini is going to give a shit what I think about the new Screaming Females record or Steve Albini or nostalgia. It’s part of what I like about the guy.
But you must give some kind of a shit (or at least halfway decent fart? Perhaps a tinker’s damn?) about what I think about the new Screaming Females album or you wouldn’t be reading this. What I think is that Ugly is simultaneously the best Screaming Females album and one that would propel them to wider success if there was any goddamn justice in this world (I won’t say there is no justice because there occasionally is but I’m comfortable saying there’s not nearly enough justice in this country, especially if you’re a person of color).
From opener “It All Means Nothing” to closing ballad “It’s Nice,” the band tears through each song like a lion tearing the flesh of the slowest wildebeest (I initially didn’t spell that word correctly & had to look it up. You learn something gnu every day) in the herd. Paternoster’s guitar gets a lot of press when people talk about the Screaming Females, but Ugly finds her at her finest vocally too, although not everyone is gonna find her voice as awesome as I do. She can be a little strident, and plenty snarly, but when she is, she reminds me a lot of Kathleen Hanna on “Double Dare Ya” or Poly Styrene on “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” or Andy Falkous on pretty much every Future of the Left album (I am excited as hell about their new album, The Plot Against Common Sense and I want you to be too. So pre-order it here, will ya? *Update: You can listen to the new Future of the Left record here. Believe me when I tell you that it is fucking great). Paternoster also croons a bit on Ugly (especially on “It’s Nice”) and “Leave It All Up to Me” features some fantastic harmonies. The strongest melody is probably on “Crow’s Nest,” which features the most joyfully infectious guitar riff I’ve heard since Built to Spill’s “Conventional Wisdom.”
Lyrically, Ugly gets into some dark territory (the sorta-title-track, “Something Ugly,” has a refrain of, “Put Mama on the phone/ I’m afraid to die alone,” for instance) – there’s torture (“Red Hand” and “Expire”) and loss of faith (Paternoster sings, “All my faith just keeps me ill” on “Tell Me No”), but there are also some lines, particularly in “It All Means Nothing,” that strike me as addressing Paternoster’s feelings about what our society seems to want from its musical leading ladies. Probably the best line on the album comes within its first chorus: “I’m on a mission to smash the mirror/ get myself off the scale.” I hear in that, whether Paternoster intends it or not, an indictment of the way art is sucked out of music in the process of turning songs into marketable products. And when the song becomes a marketable product, the singer does too – but the options for what kind of products female singers are allowed to be are limited. Read any of the mountains of stories about Kelly Clarkson’s weight if you don’t believe me. Marissa Paternoster does not fit the mold of a woman who will sell a billion albums and wow the red carpet folks at the Grammys and I, for one, could not be happier about it.
But the bottom line here is this: loud rock music is something that is easy to do really badly and so the feat accomplished by the Screaming Females on Ugly (and their other albums) is not to be underestimated. In a time of Nickelbacks and My Chemical Romances, they have made a triumphant-yet-unassuming rock record that runs rings around its better-known competition.