Album review: Screaming Females get noisy and hooky on ‘Ugly’

Screaming Females
Don Giovanni

The incendiary punkish alt-rock trio Screaming Females may contain only one female member — lead singer and guitarist Marissa Paternoster — but the band’s name is not inaccurate; Paternoster herself contains multitudes.

There are moments on the band’s fifth record, “Ugly,” when her voice, singular and bleeding, and broken-glass guitar so dominate the compositions that bass and drums — provided by Michael Abbate and Jarrett Dougherty, respectively — almost become superfluous. For some folks, Paternoster’s razor-blade voice is likely all-or-nothing in its appeal. It squeals and twists in tandem with her overdriven guitar in a way that is abrasive yet seductive.

Witness “Crow’s Nest,” the sharpest demonstration of Paternoster’s skill on “Ugly.” It begins with crescendoing bass, which rises from noisy-neighbor level to floor-rattling in 20 seconds. When the rest of the trio kicks in, at full volume and attitude, you’d be forgiven for not even noticing what the bass and drums are doing. Paternoster’s vox-plus-guitar combo rides on top, and the pair together is intoxicating. Subtract either element from the equation and the song becomes either a grating, overly-emotive tome or a reupholstering of so many of J. Mascis’ guitar lines. But together, they burn.

Screaming Females is the most accomplished and notable act to come out of the New Brunswick, N.J. basement scene. Their record label, Don Giovanni, has been successfully carrying that scene’s flag far beyond northwest Jersey for some time now. For all of the stereotypes that the modifiers DIY and “basement scene” conjure, Screaming Females do a hell of a lot to make you forget that you’re supposed to be young, poor and carefree/less in order to enjoy these songs.

On “Help Me” Paternoster sings: “You make it look easy to be strong / you lift my crutch and guide me home.” While that’s definitely rock ‘n’ roll, it doesn’t exactly exude the self-sufficient, kiss-off attitude normally associated with DIY punk. This song and others — “It All Means Nothing,” “Rotten Apple” and the aforementioned “Crow’s Nest,” in particular — meld straight punk noise with squalling hooks that, together with the band’s fourth instrument, Paternoster’s voice, become undeniable swells of energy that cut beyond the lines of genre and stereotype.

But unless you’re sweating and thrashing about in a basement of your own volition, it’s hard to listen to guitars cranked to 10 for an hour. Screaming Females can pound and thrash as hard as anyone, but the band also knows when to downshift. The bridge on “Leave It All Up To Me,” about two thirds into the record, tears down the wall of noise, providing relief in the form of a sassy, slinky groove. The melody is completely deconstructed, only to be built back up to wrecking ball heft. Further contrast is provided by the album’s closer, “It’s Nice.” On this acoustic number, Paternoster’s knack for cutting to the quick extends well beyond punk. With deftly fingerpicked guitar, complimented by cello and violin, that voice that is most often bold and brash demonstrates subtle and trembling emotion.

“Ugly” is not without its flaws — Paternoster’s voice can become a caricature when not not used purposefully, and Abbate and Dougherty’s playing can seem uninspired — but there are enough moments of fiery punk transcendence to account for all of those sins and more.