You can’t help but get the feeling that everything is coming together in the right place at the right time for Screaming Females. After paying their dues on the Jersey basement circuit and gigging at a dive club near you, Screaming Females find themselves at a perfect convergence of circumstances with the release of their fifth LP Ugly, as the skills they’ve been honing over time are complemented by a growing profile that has allowed them the means to make the most of their vision. Indeed, it’s telling that the trio enlisted Steve Albini to engineer Ugly, going through a rite of passage that underground acts of the same weight class have on their way to bigger and better things.
And considering that Screaming Females are a better fit with Albini’s harsh, stark aesthetic than many of their predecessors and peers, it’s not hard to notice how much they got out of the experience. With the assist from Albini, Screaming Females don’t have to play the underdog for the first time, since they finally have the platform to fully flesh out a sound that’s always been defined by extremes. As if to cross-reference the best-known trio Albini’s worked with, the revved-up riff and primal drums that kick off the album’s opener “It All Means Nothing” don’t bring to mind Nirvana for nothing, as Screaming Females signal a more muscular tone from the get-go on Ugly. The leadoff number takes all the qualities that helped the band attract attention in the first place and makes them impossible to ignore, especially Marissa Paternoster’s force-to-be-reckoned-with vocals and guitar heroics. Running the gamut from metal-infused licks to bristling fuzz, the power moves of “It All Means Nothing” give you an idea of what Weezer might be like fronted by, well, a screaming female. The following track “Rotten Apple” might be even more infectious, the epitome of how Screaming Females can squeeze just enough melody out of their bruising, rollicking mix.
For the most part, Ugly lets Paternoster’s guitar play do most of the talking for it, with all sorts of metallic shredding, slice-and-dice post-punk lines, and power-pop hooks taking center stage here. While Paternoster’s m.o. has been to pummel you into submission, her virtuoso skills overwhelm you this time around by showcasing a versatility and proficiency that comes through loud and clear no matter how high the volume gets. For instance, there’s an impressive stretch in the middle of Ugly where Screaming Females run through a wide range of styles while hanging on to what makes them distinctive, seamlessly moving from Gang of Four-like dance-punk on “Red Hand” and “High” to the surfy fun of “Expire” to an amped-up take on Strokes-ish retro-rock with “Crow’s Nest”. Maybe it’s not exactly surprising that “Leave It All Up to Me” recalls the group’s most obvious touchstone, Sleater-Kinney, but what catches you off guard is the way the angular riffs in the intro give way to Paternoster’s rendition of ornate Siamese Dream-era Smashing Pumpkins noodling without anyone noticing it. It’s an unlikely combo for sure, but Screaming Females are able to blend these signature sounds seamlessly because they’re channeled through the NJ threesome’s own unmistakable identity.
Indulging their sweet tooth for such pyrotechnics does, however, lead Screaming Females away from the scrappy, sucker-punch melodies that helped the spitfire ditties on their last effort Castle Talk grow on you subliminally, if you can say that about a band that’s anything but subtle. Although Screaming Females recover a little bit of that begrudging poppiness on the bubblegummy “Help Me”, those charms become lost in the shuffle when they appear near the close of the album. By that point, after the almost eight-minute workout of “Doom 84”, Screaming Females’ penchant for excess and volume almost becomes too much of a good thing, as some of the songs towards the end of the 14-cut tracklist feel interchangeable. What does stand out — the head-scratching chamber-rock coda “It’s Nice” — sticks out like a sore thumb, as the band takes its bow by wandering aimlessly to patient acoustic strumming and an out-of-place string arrangement.
Still, “It’s Nice” notwithstanding, there’s a real sense of purpose to the way Screaming Females realize their ambition and potential on Ugly. And as relentless, restless, and unsatisfied Screaming Females sound, there’s no doubt they’ll keep pushing themselves even if they’ve already arrived with Ugly.