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Shriek of the Week: Screaming Females, “Expire”

February 12, 2014

It’s not just the shows you go to, it’s the shows that you mean to get to but don’t. Those have an impact as well.

Screamales_Ugly (1)I really wanted to see the Screaming Females perform at the Don Giovanni Showcase this past Saturday night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. I didn’t have tickets but the show wasn’t sold out, and in my mind, for the past two weeks, I could visualize myself at the show, jumping up and down to Marissa Paternoster‘s vicious guitar playing. Over a year ago I purchased the band’s 2012 album, Ugly, but then didn’t listen to it much. Two factors conspired to me having a lingering interest in the Screaming Females though. The first was the set they put on as the opening act for the Thermals at Bowery Ballroom last June. Here’s what I wrote then:

… watching Paternoster play was an experience unlike any I’ve seen in person. In her black clothes and with dark hair falling over her face, it would be easy to assume that her performance would be more style than substance. You’d be very wrong. All at once Paternoster screams into her microphone with the angst of a 1990s Riot Grrrl, falls to the floor writhing like I’ve only seen Kim Gordon do, and plays extended stretches of ferocious guitar (often from that position on the ground) as if she believes she is carrying Jimi’s torch. I’m far from an expert but I knew that I was watching something special; when I searched her name this morning and discovered that this relatively obscure performer was named by Spin as the 77th best guitarist of all time (for context: one spot behind Joy Division and New Order’s Bernard Sumner!), I felt vindicated and not the least bit surprised.

Screamales_Ugly (2)I went on to explain how this is only part of what impressed me about Paternoster. After all, I still hadn’t even mentioned her voice, which is powerful and unique. How this sweet little lamb brought all this rage to her performance is still a wonder, and one I wanted to see again as a headlining act.

The second factor was a single song, my Shriek of the Week, “Expire”. I downloaded Expire to my iPhone immediately after the show (the mp3 is available for free legal download here). Although I rarely played Ugly in its entirety, and never played the album I bought at the show, 2009’s Power Move, I listened to this one song over and over again.

Stereogum called Expire “a rocket-boosted album track that shows the humungous wail and crazy axe dexterity of leader Marissa Paternoster.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. The song is catchy without featuring a huge hook; it invites you to listen over and over without forcing you to sing along. The song is at once intense yet approachable, and it was enough to convince me that I needed to see Screaming Females live (again). This time, though, I wanted to be prepared.

And so I listened to Ugly. And I listened to it again. And again. And many more times after that. The album, coming in at over 50 minutes, sprawls out over two LP, which led me to focus first on only on sides A and B. The first song on the album – “It All Means Nothing” (video below) – was also the first single, and is also the first chance you get to hear exactly what Screaming Females are all about. Everything that this album encompasses – the masterful guitar playing, the haunting vocals, the dark lyrics, and the overall controlled chaos – are right here in the first song. Then, as if to reiterate the point, comes “Rotten Apple”, a highlight reel of Paternoster doing what she does best – howl and shred. The next few songs are more of the same, though the album doesn’t feel bloated. Each one has its own merit and deserves its place on the record.

Screamales_Ugly (3)

Side two kicks off with “High”, with Screaming Females beginning to sound a bit like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on Halloween. Expire is next, the album’s peak right in the middle of Side B. The album continues with this same sound over and over – Paternoster a weird hybrid of J. Mascis and Karen O, heavily distorted but melodious guitar informed by an insanely crackling voice that could serve as the vocal accompaniment to your worst nightmare, if your nightmares sounded beautiful. I realize that I am presenting this album in a way that is impossible to “hear” in your head, but I assure you it’s not (entirely) due to my inability to adequately describe sound. Screaming Females are just that unique.

Screamales_Ugly (4)I didn’t listen to Sides C and D quite as much, though the second peak of the album definitely appears on Side C – the 7-1/2 minute “Doom 84”. Doom 84 is almost exactly the opposite of Expire – it’s lengthy, it doesn’t feature hooks, it isn’t remotely danceable and it’s largely instrumental. Yet it is still 100% of this record. Expire and Doom 84 stand at opposite ends of a spectrum that is consistently filled with punk rage, a highly developed voice and carefully constructed songs. Every song on Ugly falls somewhere in this spectrum –  a mix of genes from Dinosaur Jr and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs – it is only the level of mixing that varies.

As for the artwork on this excellent album, well … did I mention that Marissa Paternoster is one of the most talented people in music today? In addition to playing killer guitar and singing like no one else, Paternoster does all of the intricate artwork for Screaming Females herself. When I met Paternoster at the Bowery show last summer, I almost got the sense that she was as proud of her artwork as she was of her music. (Of course, she spoke more about her cat than anything else.) She proudly told me that she did all of the cover art and when I asked her which album to buy, she led to to Power Move, I believe, because she liked the artwork on that one best.(I had told her that I already owned Ugly.)

As she explained to ABC News (huh?), she went to art school and has what she calls “a useless degree in drawing,” channeling very specific inspirations for Ugly. ABC goes on to say that her style often garners comparisons to Nick Blinko‘s, a British punk rock musician and lead singer of Rudimentary Peni, who, like Paternoster, created all of the original artwork used by the band. In addition to being influenced by the old etchings of Albrecht Dürer, Paternoster told ABC that she deliberately stopped working in color, building off of the kinds of compositions and figures seen on Screaming Females’ previous release, Baby Teeth.

I’m extremely disappointed that I didn’t get to see the Screaming Females live this past Saturday night, but I’m glad that the show got me immersed in this excellent album that takes the best of college rock, punk, grunge and indie pop and melds it all together.

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Video: It All Means Nothing

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