[27 March 2013]
I’ve always gotten a certain sly satisfaction from the fact that the name of the sole woman and most visible member of New Jersey’s Screaming Females is literally Latin for “our father”. Marissa Paternoster is indeed a force of nature worthy of being a patriarch, matriarch or any other sort of progenitor for a rock band you could think of but the last year wasn’t easy on dear old, err, dad. Following the release of the band’s fifth album Ugly, she struggled with health problems ranging from ongoing unexplained body pains to mono, forcing the cancellation of a slew of dates throughout the rest of the year.
It might not be surprising then that Paternoster decided to let the rest of the Screaming Females carry a little more of the weight on their latest cassette and digital only EP, Chalk Tape. The band’s output up to this point has been an extended celebration of the range and power of the electric guitar, culminating in Ugly, which was a dazzling display of the textural, rhythmic and melodic possibilities of a well-distorted six string. This makes Chalk Tape an anomaly within their catalog, as it is the least guitar-driven song set they’ve released yet.
The name is apparently derived from the band’s songwriting process which involved writing loose ideas out on a chalkboard then turning them into songs and getting them on tape as quickly as possible. This expedited gestation period is readily apparent with most songs ending abruptly, as if there weren’t time to figure out a third verse or middle eight and three quarters of the tracks clocking in under 2:30. The resulting songs are somewhat of a mixed bag. The opener “Sick Bed” is a bass and drums-only number that manages to meander through its short running time without ever finding a solid groove, perhaps due to the fact that Mike King plays his fuzzed-out bass like a lead guitar. Similarly “Wrecking Ball” manages to make its mixture of inventive drumming, fractured guitar and uvula-shredding vocals add up to less than the sum of their parts.
Elsewhere the Females have more success, as with the beguilingly Middle Eastern outing “Into The Sun,” which features some damn fine bongo work from Jarrett Dougherty and Paternoster doing her best snake-charmer impression on guitar. “Bad Men,” only the group’s second acoustic song, is not only well-executed (especially the overdubbed vocals that allow Paternoster to harmonize with herself) but it also features the best songwriting of the release. Still, as enjoyable as all these songs are in their present forms, one can’t help but feel that they’d be even more impressive had they been a little extra time in the oven. Evidence of creative undercooking is seen most clearly the thrashy “Crushing The Kingdom” and wonderfully fuzzy singalong “Green Vapors”; both are incredibly fun musically but feel like rough sketches just begging to be fully colored in.
Given the group’s already more expansive sound on Ugly, it’s hard to tell whether the sonic exploration on Chalk Tape is the result of a new experimentalist streak in the band or just some goofing for a low-stakes EP but that makes it all the more intriguing. While it’s enjoyable to hear the group push themselves, it’s also telling that the record’s high point, the stripped-down rocker “Poison Arrow,” is also the song that would have sounded most at home on any of the band’s previous full-length albums. In the end it’s likely that the next release will see at least some extension of the restless inventiveness seen here coupled with a return to the more rigorous songwriting/recording process the band is known for. Screaming Females fans should be excited on both counts.