Album Of The Week: Screaming Females Rose Mountain
This column can be hard to write when I’m not in love with any album that comes out during a particular week. But it’s a whole lot harder when I’m in love with way too many albums. This was one of those weeks. This is kind of a good problem to have, but there is simply too much great new music this week. It’s out of hand. I can barely keep track of it all, let alone write about all of it. Four of the month of February’s five or six best albums are coming out today, and this month hasn’t exactly been hurting for good music. With their self-titled debut, Future Brown made an album of pan-global street music that finds connections between hard-as-fuck Chicago goon-rap and cerebral European club music without dumbing down either of them. Torche are maybe the best band in the world at combining huge, beyond-catchy melodies with throat-stomping riffage, and the new Restarter is their heaviest album in years. Most heartbreaking at all: Colleen Green’s I Want To Grow Up is what happens when a Californian pop-punk stoner writes her own Exile In Guyville. It’s an album full of wincingly specific observations and too-real emotional frankness and neck-snap hooks. It rules. I’ve gone back and forth for weeks on whether it should be Album Of The Week today. Any of those three albums would’ve been Album Of The Week last week, and most of them would’ve been if they’d come out next week. Hell, even the new Big Sean album is really good. But then there’s Rose Mountain. And Rose Mountain is a force that I simply cannot deny.
Rose Mountain, the new album from the Jersey punk trio Screaming Females, ends with a merciless thud-rocker called “Criminal Image,” a badass rock song on an album full of them. At five minutes plus, it’s the album’s longest song, and it gives the axe-wrecking frontwoman Marissa Paternoster a few minutes to solo triumphantly toward the end, which is always a glorious thing to hear. But midway through “Criminal Image,” something happens that’s somehow even more heartening: A piano shows up. It’s not there for long, and it doesn’t do much of the song’s heavy lifting. But its mere presence, tinkling bluesily along with the melody during the breakdown and doing a playful back-and-forth parry with Paternoster’s guitar, is remarkable. Screaming Females are six albums in now, and I’ve never heard them pull anything like that piano trick. They’re a spartan band: Three instruments, one voice, no tricks, recording fidelity usually way low. And they’re a great punk band, maybe the best one we have. But that quick burst of piano shows just how far they’ve come, how much they’ve expanded their scope. That piano, of course, isn’t the same thing a string section or a gospel choir or a Mellotron. And it’s not an ostentatious trick; it serves both the song’s melody and the album’s momentum. But it’s such a brilliant bit of arrangement, arriving and disappearing at the exact right moments, and it shows that this band somehow still has the capacity to get better. (See also: The organ on “Hopeless.” That is some goddam great organ.)
The band recorded their last album, 2012’s Ugly, with Steve Albini, and it might be the defining statement of the band’s early years, the one where they perfected everything they’d been trying to do for four albums running. Ugly is a near-perfect punk rock record and one of my favorite rock albums of this decade. Gun to my head, I probably like it a smidge better than Rose Mountain, though it seems ridiculous to pit two records this great against each other and not declare them both winners. On the Ugly closer “It’s Nice,” the band actually did fuck around with strings a little bit. But “It’s Nice” announced itself as an anomaly, a quiet sigh at the end of a long, raging album. The piano on “Criminal Image” is different because it’s completely in keeping with what Screaming Females are doing throughout Rose Mountain. Rose Mountain isn’t really a punk record. It’s a classic rock record, a record built from the sort of riffs that rattle your car windows. As great as Albini’s knife-edge clarity was for Screamales on Ugly, they made a smart choice not going back to him for this batch of songs. Instead, they recorded with Matt Bayles, a producer who’s worked with metal bands like Mastodon and Isis. This time around, Screamales have slowed down, sharpened up their melodies, and dedicated themselves to mastering the lost art of rock-song dynamics. And in Bayles, they’ve found a producer who knows how to make sure every moment kicks you right in the gut. Bayles’ production job gives the band room to make every big moment land like a slab of concrete. The rhythm section, bassist King Mike and drummer Jarrett Dougherty, are more locked-in than I’ve ever heard them, and Mike gets the chance to play some absolutely monster riffs, especially when Paternoster is busy soloing.
And the choruses on this album! They’re so great! It’s almost not fair! Paternoster’s got this full-bodied ululating wail, a cyclone of voice that gathers its force up on the verses and then just explodes on the chorus. She’s always done this. And now she’s writing songs that pound those choruses home even harder, building up tension and then turning it into an ecstatic explosion of release. The songs on Rose Mountain have focus and structure, and every time Paternoster moves from a song’s bridge into its final chorus, it’s like a locomotive barreling into your fucking face. The songs aren’t all warlike stomps. “Wishing Well” may be the straight-up catchiest song Screamales have ever written; it’s a mid-’90s alt-rock radio hit born 20 years too late. But even there, Paternaster turns the fuck up on the hook, clamping down on every single syllable and selling the hell out of a dubious hook about tossing dimes in the titular wishing well and going broke. Truthfully, I haven’t spent much mental energy on the lyrics from Rose Mountain, which apparently deal with the case of mono that laid Paternoster up and sidelined her band for way too long a couple of years ago. I’ve been singing “you’re a Cyyyyyylllllon” along with the “Criminal Image” chorus, on some Battlestar Galactica shit, even though I’m pretty sure the actual lyric is “you’re a siren.” This is an album where the words don’t really matter, at least not to me. The music is too huge and too physical, and what matters (again, to me) is the way the songs make me feel.
They make me feel like smashing strangers in the face with steel chairs. They make me feel like gargling blood. They make me feel like conjuring magical fireballs and then throwing those fireballs at gas stations. This is that kind of album. It’s the kind of album where you need to hear it turned up loud enough that you can feel the vibrations in the soles of your feet. I’ve seen a few muted reactions to the album, largely because it understandably bums some people out when a great punk band mostly stops being a punk band. I get that. But when a rock album bangs this hard, I can’t think about what I wish the album was doing. Rose Mountain is a hard rock album for the ages. If you have the slightest interest in hearing hard rock in 2015, you owe it to yourself to let the album kick you in the ass.
Other albums of note out today:
• Colleen Green’s insanely catchy, smartly observed, fuzzed-out power-pop instant classic I Want To Grow Up.
• Torche’s roaring, thundering Restarter.
• Future Brown’s cosmopolitan, guest-heavy self-titled street-music debut.
• Big Sean’s shockingly competent big-budget rap album Dark Sky Paradise.
• Dan Deacon’s reliably giddy robot symphony Gliss Riffer.
• Ghostface Killah & BADBADNOTGOOD’s full-length team-up Sour Soul.
• Dutch Uncles’ tricky, intricate smart-pop suite O Shudder.
• Emile Haynie’s guest-heavy, production-rich breakup album We Fall.
• THEESatisfaction’s history-rick art-rap trip EarthEE.
• Gang Of Four’s weathered post-punker What Happens Next.
• The King Khan & BBQ Show’s garage-rock reunion Bad News Boys.
• Steve Gunn and the Black Twig Pickers’ psych-folk collaboration Seasonal Hire.
• Jack Ladder & The Dreamlanders’ raspily loungey Playmates.
• Crypt Sermon’s blazing trad-metaller Out Of The Garden.
• Gal Pals’ shimmering garage-popper Velvet Rut.
• Tairiq & Garfield’s cyber-techno debut Childhood Swing.
• Romare’s somber, meditative Projections.
• Elvis Perkins’ solo return I Aubade.
• Sam Prekop’s modular synth-dominated The Republic.
• ’70s singer-songwriter Andy Kim’s Kevin Drew collab It’s Decided.
• Beatmaker and Broad City music guy Hot Sugar’s solo effort God’s Hand.
• Weeping Rat’s murky post-punker Tar.
• Public Service Broadcasting’s cinematic, sci-fi-addled The Race For Space.
• Passenger Peru’s gnarled, doomy Light Places.
• IZAH’s atmospheric sludge zone-out Sistere.
• Nasty’s metalcore punch-out Shokka.
• The To Show That You’re Still Here suicide-prevention benefit compilation.
• Diet Cig’s Over Easy EP.
• Iamsu!’s Eyes On Me EP.
• MDNR & Sweet Valley’s Dance 4 A Dollar EP.
• Pelican’s The Cliff EP.
• Cheatahs’ Sunne EP.
• Andy Butler’s You Can Shine EP.