Monday, July 12, 2010
Album: Holy Hell
Don Giovanni, 2010
Rating: ******* (7/10)
Although Holy Hell has been touted as the first solo release of Screaming Females' Marissa Paternoster, in truth Paternoster has been using the name "Noun" as a vehicle for releases for years now, they just haven't been very formal releases. However, now that Paternoster's band's career has taken off, her identity as a solo art seems to have crystallized as well. The songs that fall under the Noun moniker are still a scattered bunch and Holy Hell does seem like a bit of a dumping ground for odds and ends that fit nowhere else. However, Paternoster's identity as a musician is strong enough, especially when backed with her reputation in Screaming Females, that the album manages against odds to cohere as a statement.
What's most surprising about Holy Hell is that Paternoster's identity as a musician is not established through her much-noted guitar playing. Despite being one of the great guitar heroes of our time (evidenced despite her obscurity in features in Guitar World, Rolling Stone and the like), in Noun, Paternoster is a singer and songwriter. Sure, there's some blistering guitar in there, but when the music trades it in for piano, it's the strange but powerful voice that binds the music together.
Before I carry on, let me make one thing clear - by using terms like "songwriter" and "piano," I don't mean our screaming female has gone soft. The album may be less consistently rock and roll than her band's work, but even at its quietest, the album draws on anger, bitterness and rebellion. (Think PJ Harvey, but slightly less pissed and more sad. And I mean slightly.)
Paternoster was a strong singer even on Screaming Females' 2006 debut, but it seems in the last few years, she's developed a new level of comfort and maturity. "Wrong Things" may be the best example. The strange leaps between high and low voice, the peculiar tone, it's easy to forget Paternoster is only about 24 years old (give or take a year). It's difficult to even imagine what she'll be capable of in a few years.
Holy Hell starts boldly with the rather well-titled "Black Lamb," a sparse, haunted piano ballad that at once makes clear the album is not a vehicle for Paternoster to show off her guitar skills. "Outer Space" has got a kickin' enough riff to almost be a Screaming Females song, but it hasn't quite got a SF-style bass line or melody. "Old Friends" takes it down a notch again, with measured and emotive vocal harmonies over gently feedbacking guitar. The title track makes a strong but predictable centerpiece (a little early in the album for that, I guess, but it serves as such to my ears, a least).
After the astounding control of "Wrong Things," Pearly Gates rocks out with all-around distortion (on the vocals too) for a good but not standout track. "Call Earth" fails to quite click, but that's okay, because it's quickly obliterated by the excellent "So Rough," a thick guitar-pop song with delicious distortion and just a touch of flange. The quiet-loud contrast, with Paternoster's vocals standing bare ("How did it end this way? / I miss you day to day") then sailing in over a brilliant riff, is executed with near perfection. Although I know this song reminds distinctly of song I listened to a long time ago (ten bucks if you can name the source, cause I can't remember and it's driving me crazy), everything's ripped off somewhere. And this song is fucking awesome.
The dark, plodding "Brother" is more roar than murmur, but the restrained tempo and minimal drums keep the tune tense and edgy. Finally, the closer, "Talk," is a knock out of a song. The melancholy, swung melody shoots up into that same breaking range of "Wrong Things" over subtle lead guitar and no-to-barely-any drums, like an appropriately electrified lullaby for a true rock album.
If Holy Hell accomplishes one thing, it's stripping away Paternsoter's overshadowing guitar hero status to reveal a musician who can write and sing as well as she can shred. As any follower of Noun might expect, the album lacks a degree of cohesion and purpose, but the unbelievable quality of the songs suggests what we already suspected - that we have found one of the greatest musicians of this new generation, one with not only the potential but in fact the promise to change rock and roll.