It’s really a shame that a Screaming Females record can’t replicate the experience of seeing them live. Not for the usual reasons — live music is more immediate, powerful, what have you — but because frontwoman, singer, and guitarist Marissa Paternoster is barely five-feet tall, and watching her produce the unearthly howls and scorching riffs and solos that propel so much of Screaming Females’ material is a unique experience. Something about it seems a little off, and it provides a perfect visual complement to the band’s fractured, classic rock inspired take on punk.
That being said, Castle Talk, their fourth and latest album, hardly suffers in an audio-only format. It pulls off the significant accomplishment of smoothing out a few of their eccentricities and presenting Screaming Females in a slightly glossier, more palatable setting, without compromising their personality or idiosyncrasies.
Chief among these idiosyncrasies is Paternoster’s voice. Strident, powerful, and with the tendency to lapse into a shuddering vibrato, it evokes in equal measure Grace Slick and Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker. Castle Talk finds her dialing back on the bloodcurdling shrieks she occasionally deployed for emphasis, and, while this does deny the band some visceral impact, it also opens up the sound a little bit and presents a more tuneful, accessible aspect of the group. “Boss”, in particular, benefits from this approach; the verses are subdued, and the chorus (“I could be the boss of you any day / I tried really hard”) assumes a mournful quality, as if such effort isn’t worth it, rather than simply shouting put-downs.
Long-time fans will be pleased to learn, though, that this approach does not extend to reining in Paternoster’s more ferocious tendencies as a guitarist. Whether anchoring songs with colossal power chord riffs or delivering scorching solos (which are split fairly evenly between soaring figures reminiscent of Bob Mould’s work in Hüsker Dü and J Mascis-like lightspeed freakouts), Paternoster does at least one awesome thing per track. There are bands that can’t manage that average per record, so good work there.
Recognition is also due to drummer Jarrett Dougherty and bassist Michael Abbate for the versatility displayed here. Subtle arrangement touches like the wiry new wave groove of “Laura + Marty”, the moody post-punk intro on “Boss”, and the seasick half-time lurch of “A New Kid” do a great deal to differentiate songs on a record so dominated by one musical personality. The flip side of that is that on songs without such details, the record starts to feel a little samey. There’s a stretch of songs in the second half — “Wild”, “Nothing at All”, much of “Fall Asleep” — that sound like everything that has come before, only not quite as good. Even though things pick back up with “Sheep” (which kicks ass, incidentally), you find yourself pining for a little variety.
Unfortunately, the record’s biggest change of pace is also its biggest misstep. This would be “Deluxe”, the penultimate track. It’s a short acoustic song, and what’s frustrating about it is not that they can’t deliver in a more intimate context, but that it has been drowned in superfluous production tricks, like cavernous echo and a deliberately obscure mix. What begins as a tantalizing hint of a road not traveled or a possible future direction instead comes across as a band hedging its bets by deliberately messing with its least typical song. Since the rest of their material hardly comes across as meek or timid, it’s kind of disappointing.
Still, Castle Talk‘s best moments are reminiscent of the products of the ’80s underground scene, when bands like the Minutemen and Dinosaur Jr. made music that was too raw and energetic not to be punk, but rejected the amateurish orthodoxy that plagued so much of the genre. Screaming Females accomplish something similar. It is to their credit that they are still exploring new aspects of their sound on their fourth record, and there is no reason to believe that their best work isn’t still ahead of them.