[12 June 2014]
If you’ve ever read Michael Azzerad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, you have a sense of what life as an indie (or “punk” or “alternative” or whatever the label de jour was) band was a rough-hewn thing thirty years ago. Before there were well-worn circuits of small and mid-size clubs, major indie labels and a decent chance that you heard about Yo La Tengo from NPR, bands not interested in or too idiosyncratic for the major label system pretty much had to figure things out themselves, booking shows through friends of friends and hoping to find like-minded souls to put out their records. It was a world where cramped, divey, Hideout-esque rooms were the norm. This is the world that Steve Albini came from and fetishizes. It’s also the world that, despite their age, the Screaming Females still seem familiar with here in 2014.
So it makes more than a little sense that when the New Jersey trio decided to record a live album, they recruited Albini (who also manned the boards for their 2012 double album Ugly). They originally planned to record at the iconic Maxwell’s in the band’s native New Jersey but Marissa Paternoster’s 2012 bout with mono derailed that plan. So, in early 2014 they opted for arguably the next best option, one of indie rock’s most beloved dive bars, Chicago’s Hideout. It was recorded over two brutally cold January nights where sellout crowds packed into a back room not much larger (or more tastefully decorated) than your parents’ basement to bathe in the warmth of their fellow humans and the Screaming Females’ blistering brand of guitar rock.
The resulting record is more than a simple tour document or de facto greatest hits collection that so many live albums end up becoming. Live at the Hideout is the ultimate proof of what every Screaming Females fan has been telling you all along - this is a band you have to see live. That’s an impressive reputation, given that the band’s studio albums aren’t exactly duds. But there’s something about what happens when these three relatively soft-spoken people from New Jersey stand in front of an audience that coalesces into an explosive, life-affirming rush of sound an energy—it’s a reminder of what rock ‘n’ roll can be.
Don Giovanni Records released Live at the Hideout both digitally and as a double LP and approaching the set as a series of four sides is actually an helpful exercise. The band has said that it thinks of its sets in terms of “chunks” of songs where the tunes run together into cathartic slabs of noise. It’s best to think about this album as side-long runs of songs such as the the run of “Extinction”, “A New Kid”, and “Lights Out”. During these runs, the Screamales build steam and transform themselves from a really good band at the start to a force of nature by the end. It’s not till the halfway point of the record that we hear anything other than music from the band when Paternoster sheepishly offers a brief introduction and that makes sense—the songs speak for themselves.
Being a power trio, the Screaming Females need to make the most out of every sound they produce and Albini’s mix on Live at the Hideout allows each member to shine while still maintaining the endorphin-producing overall effect of the band onstage. Mike “King” Mike’s bass is the biggest winner on the album’s mix as Albini knows when let it it’s fuzzy dominance shine through and when to let it sync with Jarrett Dougherty’s drums as Paternoster takes the lead. Speaking of the band’s sole female, as always, she manages to steal the show with a mixture of guitar and vocal acrobatics that, at times seem impossible for one person to produce by themself.
Interestingly, it’s the oldest songs that sound the best under this treatment. Albini already did a damn good job putting the band’s songs to wax on Ugly so the newer numbers here don’t sound too terribly different from their studio counterparts. But songs pulled from earlier albums (especially their first two self-produced records) are almost entirely new beasts. Songs like “Lights Out” and “Starve the Beat” retain their original shapes at the outset but then threaten to come apart at the seams during their hair-raising outros. Paternoster’s guitar acrobatics here should put to rest any doubts that she’s one of the finest shredders of her generation but it’s their ability to lock into the rhythm section’s cataclysmic accompaniment that’s so thrilling. This is a band that pushes itself to do something amazing every time out and, if nothing else, the world-destroying version of “Boyfriend” that closes the record shows that their commitment continues to yield head-spinning results. After five studio albums, the Screaming Females have finally distilled the essence of their sound into a single record.