The most notable thing about indie guru Steve Albini’s involvement with the Screaming Females’ fifth album is how little about the band he bothered to change. But then, Albini’s a smart guy, and the first rule of punk rock – the first rule of anything, really – is don’t fix what ain’t broke. If anything, Albini probably just kept the coffee pot filled; after four albums of frantic, frenetic, high-energy rock squall, you had to wonder if the Screamales could crank it up another notch.
Well, they could, and did. Everything about Ugly sounds like the Screaming Females except ever-so-much-more-so; Marissa Paternoster’s dexterous shredding and banshee vocals seem even edgier and more possessed than ever. If Albini makes a decision on this album, it’s that in the contest between Paternoster’s awesome guitar skills and her uniquely acerbic vocals, her voice turns out to be the more potent weapon. Yes, there are solos and yes, there are riffs you can barely follow with human ears, but it’s that voice that stands out more than anything here. That’s not to say that bassist King Mike and drummer Jarrett Daugherty disappear; it’s their precision and economy that provide the canvas on which Paternoster gets to splatter her vivid colors. But except for a few moments when the drums clatter the intro to a song or Mike’s bass burbles a little riff between power chords, the spotlight remains focused tightly on the little girl in the old-fashioned dress with the big guitar and bigger voice.
The band stretches to 14 songs (their other full lengths stuck to 10 tracks) but there’s no filler on Ugly; if anything, the final few are the album’s strongest. And then there’s “It’s Nice,” the closing track that lets Marissa sing rather than yowl and swaddles her voice with acoustic guitar and orchestral strings. It’s so powerful a statement that it suggests there’s another whole album inside of Paternoster that sounds nothing like Screaming Females. But then, nothing else sounds like Screaming Females already.
– Jim Testa