Seeing Screaming Females live for the first time is a head-snap-back moment; until they’re actually playing in front of you, there’s no way you could possibly know the band is this good. Before the first time I saw them, I’d heard and read plenty of people singing their praises, but none of it actually prepared me for the image of Marissa Paternoster, singing in a pitched-up feral howl and choking blazing solos out of her guitar while at the same time looking absolutely bored with herself and everything around her. She’s a ferociously talented frontwoman, and it’s even more impressive to see her finding ways to show that talent off in the form of three-minute battering-ram punk songs; it’s not like her rhythm section slows things down so she can let those solos erupt. That live show is a breathtaking thing, and I spent a decent chunk of that first show mentally slapping myself for taking so long to go see them; god knows I’d flaked out on plenty of opportunities beforehand. But cursory listens to a couple of the band’s previous four albums were essentially why I took so long in getting to see them. Those albums had some good songs, but they also seemed muddy and unfocused, not like the band I’d heard so many good things about. With the brand-new Ugly, that’s not an issue anymore.
It’s not always a good idea for bands to record with Steve Albini, especially these days. In the past few years, a whole lot of indie bands have turned toward wispy melodic drift, making liberal use of reverb and delay and going for stargazing emotional sweep. Albini doesn’t fuck around with any of that. Sharp, serrated clarity is his thing, and when an experimental indie-pop band like the Forms tries recording with him, the result can often be a little too sharp and bright. That’s not a problem that Screaming Females have. Paternoster is exactly the sort of talent who benefits from Albini’s recording style, and on Ugly, we hear every vocal swoop and fiery guitar lead.
Ugly is a generous album, 14 songs in 54 minutes, and it’s got some songs that are bigger and more powerful than anything I’ve yet heard from the band — though it’s possible to imagine that they’ve been writing songs this good all along and that their recordings just weren’t up to the task of conveying those songs’ power. There’s something almost savant-like about the band’s grasp of classic-rock dynamics. Consider, for example, the false ending on “Leave It All Up To Me,” where the song dissolves into a quiet bit, then a feedbacky fade-out, and then returns with bloodthirsty vengeance, the riff ringing back in and cutting through the darkness, bringing the song back for one last triumphant chorus and solo. “Red Hand” is a terse punk riff-stomp, one that gives me happy flashbacks to first-album Clash, at least until Paternoster opens up her throat for a chorus roar that feels almost Danzig-level. On “Tell Me No,” her guitar solo hits some quasi-Middle Eastern melodic punch, like “Kashmir,” or prime Dick Dale. “Doom 84″ is nearly eight minutes of unrelenting divebomb riffage, and I had no idea it was even that long until I looked at my iTunes window just now — a pretty clear sign of a long song done effectively. “It’s Nice” is an album-ending string-laden acoustic ramble that feels like a well-earned contented sigh after all that fury. It’s almost not fair for an album to have this many great songs. After listening to it nonstop for the past month or so, I feel like I’m only just now starting to understand how good it is.
All those comparisons to classics in the last paragraph may seem like hyperbole, and maybe they are. But one of the most remarkable things about Paternoster is that she’s a rock star perfectly comfortable existing in a punk context. Nobody should be as good as she is at singing and playing guitar at the same time, and yet she’s still doing it at New Jersey basement shows with sticky beer-slick floors, and she’s writing songs that sound absolutely right in settings like that. The rigorous fast pound of her Jersey peers and predecessors is very much in evidence, and her sudden shred-bursts don’t get in the way of that pound.
I saw the band a couple of times at this past SXSW, and at one of those shows, her mic and guitar were sort of buried in the mix, which gave me a chance to appreciate the two guys backing her up. Bassist King Mike, it should be pointed out, isn’t just keeping time. He’s playing riffs himself, but his are fast and no-nonsense, and they’re what allows Paternoster to fly off into a solo and then snap right back into the song when it’s done. They’re a remarkably powerful unit, and the closest comparison I can muster is Sleater-Kinney, around the time they started cutting absolutely loose on The Woods. Even there, though, Sleater-Kinney seemed to be tailoring their songs around the moments where the actual song would drop away and Carrie Brownstein or Corin Tucker would get a chance to play some brain-blasting noise solo. On Ugly, all Screaming Females’ classic-rock theatrics fit totally organically within the songs themselves; nobody has to twist anything around for them to fit. Ugly is easily my favorite rock album of 2012 thus far, and that’s mostly because it’s the work of a band utterly in command of what they’re doing.
Other albums of note out today:
• Bear In Heaven’s romantic sigh of an indie-disco LP I Love You, It’s Cool.
• Nicki Minaj’s schizophrenic, alternately great and terrible Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded.
• Willis Earl Beal’s fiery, homespun outsider-blues debut Acousmatic Sorcery.
• High On Fire’s thundering, Kurt Ballou-produced De Vermis Mysteriis.
• BTW Ryan Power’s official debut I Don’t Want To Die.
• Former Books member Zammuto’s self-titled solo debut.
• Black Mountain’s soundtrack to the post-apocalyptic surfing movie Year Zero.
• Classic dance duo Orbital’s comeback album Wonky.
• AU’s experimental rock LP Both Lights.