As punk itself has risen from the underground and righteously staked its claim to part of mainstream culture, so has New Brunswick trio Screaming Females emerged from sweaty, beer-soaked New Jersey basements. In a town where punk bands grow on trees, what is it about Screaming Females that will make you want to sit under its shade?
Well, to start, Marissa Paternoster might just be, pound-for-pound, the best guitar player on the planet. She is a six-string freak. Imagine a 90-pound Dimebag Darrell in a little black dress. She can make her way up and down the neck as well as anyone, but don't misunderstand — she's no noodler. Whether it's an angst-filled dissonant wail, a chugging chord progression, or a raunchy classic-rock riff, every note has a purpose.
Unique is probably one of the most overused words in the English language, but it applies to Paternoster's vocal stylings. She shows off a Janis Joplin-meets-Conor Oberst vibrato, and the narrative vibrations generated by her Homeric howl are striking. The corporeality of her vocals and guitar work dance beautifully together, sharing in a rich, visceral dialogue that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
If that's not enough, bassist King Mike and drummer Jarrett Dougherty exact a precise and authoritative rhythm section. Dougherty's prudence as a percussionist and King Mike's cagey melodicism are the perfect backdrop to some of Paternoster's more gloriously disobedient tendencies.
Paternoster and King Mike have known each other since high school, and began their sonic sojourn together in a band called Surgery on TV. After assorted line-up changes, the two found drummer Dougherty and settled on the name Screaming Females. Since 2005, the trio has played hundreds of shows all over the world, but built its strong reputation and impressive repertoire by becoming a staple in New Brunswick's basement-show scene. The group's DIY ethos and boundary-pushing catalog have landed the band slots opening for bands like Dinosaur Jr., The Dead Weather, and Arctic Monkeys.
When asked what it's been like transitioning from cellars to major stages, Dougherty says, "I'm still transitioning." Paternoster's response is more pragmatic: "Now there is more room."
It's a good thing, too, because the band's sound, along with the size of the venues it plays, continues to expand.
Elements of shredding metal, instances of subtle pop sensibility, some psychedelic noise, and riffs that would be at home in any rock arena blossom from the band's healthy punk roots. And, if punk's family tree is filled with performers better known for their demeanor than for their dexterity, Screaming Females is the paradigm of post-punk: an outfit with capability and character.
The band's debut album, 2006's "Baby Teeth" — recorded for almost nothing in Dougherty's attic — lives up to its title. Despite its low budget and raw aesthetic, the disc indicates that the band's sound would gain breadth and bite with a little time. The subsequent releases have not disappointed, as Screaming Females has churned out four more full-lengths and two EP's in the last eight years, each one more refined and affecting than its predecessor.
Last year's "Ugly" — the band's third release for hometown punk label Don Giovanni — was recorded and engineered at Chicago's Electrical Audio with help from legendary producer Steve Albini and studio manager Stephen Sowley. Even though this effort sports a slicker veneer than some of the group's prior releases, it exudes the pronounced passion and jarring guitars with which the group has buttered its proverbial bread. Allmusic's Gregory Heaney gave the album high praise: "The New Jersey power trio delivers yet another batch of high-energy guitar worship that again makes a strong case for frontwoman Marissa Paternoster being the second coming of J Mascis."
Paternoster says that working at Electrical Audio was a "very sensual" experience, while King Mike went a bit further calling the sessions "sexual." I'm not exactly sure how to interpret these responses, but an air of intimacy definitely surrounds the record. It seems as though "Ugly" is the consummation of the band's potential. The musicianship has always been there, but the song craft has never been stronger.
When asked about the band's songwriting method, Paternoster simply replied with, "What method?" Whatever the approach, the group's particular brand of madness has been productive. "Ugly" is the most diverse Screaming Females album to date. It sails through a laundry list of genres, washing every adornment in a tide of scorching guitars and penetrating beats. Its moments of fury, tenderness, precision, and freedom are nothing short of incendiary.
Even after the critical acclaim that followed the release of "Ugly," it seems as though the band didn't feel any pressure to recreate the process. February's "Chalk Tape" is evidence of that. Paternoster explained the general concept behind the EP: "'Chalk Tape' began with a list of song ideas we jotted down in the van. When we got home from tour, we wrote the ideas down on a chalkboard in our practice space. We wrote the songs without second-guessing our compositions, recorded them, and that was that."
Here's hoping that Screaming Females continues to trust its judgment and open up the creative throttle. Between the band's ability to muster increasingly relevant studio work and a penchant for positively murdering live audiences, its shriek has staying power.