Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Album: Screaming Females - Castle Talk

Castle Talk (Screaming Females)
Album: Castle Talk
Don Giovanni, 2010
Rating: ******** (8/10)

FUCK. YES. Sick riff after sick riff after sick solo after sick riff. Castle Talk, out today, may well be Screaming Females' best album to date. The young New Jersey trio already has four full-lengths under their belt and while the records may never quite capture the excitement of their live show, not one of them is anything to sneeze at.

The main criticism usually leveled at Screaming Females (and as far as I can tell, the only legitimate one) is that they aren't doing anything original. That's true and it's a huge bummer. Not only are Screaming Females not revolutionizing rock music, they don't even revolutionize themselves. Their four albums, knock-outs though they are, pretty much stick to the same familiar ground laid out by the first. Yes, you can hear growing maturity over time, particularly in the production techniques but also in songwriting, but it's all a pretty straight, predictable trajectory from where the band started off.

So. Screaming Females are not the most innovative or creative band on earth. They aren't the most adventurous. They aren't the most brilliant. What they are is the best rock band on earth. They tread over familiar ground, but they easily rank among the best bands in their tradition. They play their guitars exactly the way electric guitars and bass guitars were meant to be played. They write songs the way songs should be written. They sing and scream the way the human voice was meant to. They may not be as fascinating as some of the boundary-pushers out there, but in terms of good ol' fun, catchy rock and roll, this is as good as it gets.

Announced by the first sound of the album, a deafening, distortion-fried chord, Castle Talk features the band's nastiest production to date. Their debut was recorded in true New Jersey style, pretty much live. For the follow-up, they recorded track-by-track, and received complaints from their loyal fans that the sound lacked the energy the three musicians generate when they all play at the same time. So for last year's record, the band went back to their old methods, but with a much fancier resources, spreading out to different rooms in a studio to craft their sound. The result was dynamic but still with tightly controlled production.

Castle Talk shows the band hasn't tired of trying new techniques. The album is by far the meanest sound the band has ever accomplished. It's gritty. All the spaces seem filled with distortion and buzz but nothing is sloppy or accidental. Every track seethes with noisy energy. Far more than any Screaming Females album to date, Castle Talk does the band justice.

The normal entry point to any discussion of Screaming Females is frontwoman Marissa Paternoster's sick guitar. But as always, the bass caught my attention just as much. Played by one Mike Abbate, it's the album's secret weapon - Abbate doesn't just support Paternoster, he shifts the context of songs, making Paternoster's guitar suddenly but subtly tenser, uglier or sweeter and keeping the listener from knowing quite what will happen next.

For her part, Paternoster is much more than simply one of the greatest guitarists of her generation (though she is that!). As she demonstrated on her solo album this summer, she is a powerful vocalist, with a distinctive but comfortable voice. I once compared it PJ Harvey channeling John Lennon. I think on this rougher, rawer album, she may be channeling more Vedder than Lennon, though. Or you know what? Screw that. It's more like PJ Harvey channeling PJ Harvey – not in tone (Pasternoster doesn't do any of Harvey's weird high stuff, for starters) but in spirit. In other words, the singing would certainly make anyone think twice before getting on Pasternoster's bad side.

Working collectively, Screaming Females have always been gifted songwriters, shifting the pop-rock formula just enough to keep their music slightly unpredictable from moment to moment. However, Castle Talk features the band's most consistent songwriting since their debut. Paternoster matches the group's compositions with equal (and I think significantly improved) lyrical prowess, diving into her usual rage, self-deprecation and general dysfunction that anyone who's ever been sixteen can relate to. "I wouldn't be surprised / if no one wants to waste their time on me / I'm joyfully[?] employed and normal," she proclaims on "Normal."

The album starts out with a bombshell, "Laura & Marty," a perfect example of what pop-oriented guitar rock can be, compete with a blistering and slightly decadent, but not overly indulgent, guitar solo. Paternoster's tone on her instrument calls to mind Billy Corgan (before he became a national joke), with that same wailing edge. Like Corgan, Paternoster seems to draw equally from metal and shoegaze, psychedelic and grunge, power-pop and hardcore, while never once landing even close to fitting any of those labels. The band sounds familiar (and critics would say generic) because it draws transparently from every great rock tradition. But there's something to be said for taking the best from every school and distilling it into one sick sound.

At track three, "Boss" is without a doubt, one of the band's best songs to date, if not exactly hit single material. The track starts out with hushed drums and a heartbreaking bass line, soon joined by a scalding, lonely guitar riff. The band crashes into the their familiar wall of sound, then drops away again for a restrained and beautiful verse. From there, the song flips between quiet verse to blasting chorus – nothing unusual. However, Paternoster's melody keeps the song at once catchy and slightly off-kilter, with her voice and lyrics both at their best. After a breakdown of sorts, the song closes out with a restrained but soaring, shimmering guitar riff.

"Normal" starts off with Pixies-esque guitar, wandering into faintly Spanish chords, and marks another high point for Paternoster's lyrics. Next up, "A New Kid" starts with a killer, old-school metal riff, opening into a measured, guitar-screeching, chanted verse. The chorus returns to the more familiar territory of intertwining melodies from Paternoster's fingers and mouth respectively, with the bass buried in the but relentlessly propelling the song forward.

"Fall Asleep" and "Wild" are familiar live staples. The former is one of the band's best, and most characteristic songs, split in half by a bare, mournful break. The latter is a little less interesting, with just a little too much unison between guitar and vocals, between guitar, bass and drums, and so on. "Nothing at All" is another gem following closely to the standard Screaming Females formula but boasting a badass breakdown at the song's end.

The only song to really depart from the usual Screaming Females guitar rock is the second to last track, "Deluxe." In what seems to be a reverb-drowned live recording, Paternoster's distant vocals drift in and out of sight under textured acoustic guitar. It's brief – under two minutes – and gives the album a much needed break from the distortion-loaded, vocals-forward sound of the rest of the album.

"Ghost Solo" brings the album to an appropriately rock and roll anthem ending and is one of the best examples of the band's knack for arrangement. Distant thundering drums and nervous bass lead into a building verse, with razor-sharp guitar riffs slicing through to underline (and harmonize with) fragments of Paternoster's melody. In the rich chorus, the vocals, guitar and bass take turns surging upwards, opening to one final, restrained solo before concisely closing out.

Castle Talk may not be a revolution, not in the slightest, but Screaming Females do what they do better than anybody else around. And that has some significance – this is the kind of album that could - and will - inspire girls and boys to pick up guitars and form bands. The album's raw energy and the band's clear love of their music, evident in every note, are contagious. We need people to push the envelope, but we also need bands like this to remind us what rock music is about in the first place – having fun.

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