(Don Giovanni Records; 2009)
By Conrad Amenta | 6 April 2009
Sometimes you just can’t trust the accoutrement. Case in point: the Screaming Females, whose promotional material, from the their bio to their album cover, seem designed to do exactly the opposite of what promotional material is supposed to do. Granted, if I’m taking shots at one-sheet hyperbole we’ll be here all day, but I just can’t reconcile that brutal album cover with the decidedly accessible music behind it, or the bio’s statements of surety in excess with a band that sounds mature and confident in the unassailability of their record collection.
Like the Thermals or Yeah Yeah Yeahs without any of the accompanying production sheen, place Power Move alongside this year’s infusion of pockless celebrity homage, It’s Blitz!, and hear what sounds like the throb and ebb of YYY’s punk roots. Listen to “Bell”’s power-pop-gone-ragged, its slightly harried Knack blueprint, and compare Marissa’ Paternoster’s natural, intuitive vocals with Karen O’s hysterical grappling. “Bell” is immediate, one of the best punk songs of the year; coming from someone with little patience for power chords or the windmill rock gesture (punk-pop’s paper bag, so easy to punch one’s way out of), that’s saying something.
“Skull” is more interesting, as Paternoster chucks big Ricola yelps into a chasm of reverb while blues leads and big dumb crashing drums backdrop the song into recognizability. The song is a classic-rock homage in place of the album’s prior punk or pop declarations, and in its better moments approaches Black Mountain proficiency, if dirtied up with bargain basement production values. The gist is that, when combined with the often predictable and boring “Treacher Collins,” the two songs represent the tightrope rock revisionists are forced to span. If we acknowledge before even going in that this is music we’ve heard a trillion times before—without the benefit of cultural and historical context to boot—then we’re almost de facto resigned to being the greedy listener, famished for pitches of novelty like the conga line hi-hats of “Starving Dogs.” I mean, what’s the stop us from just digging out a New York Dolls LP, anyway?
There’s another problem edged in here, which is that this music makes a hell of a lot more sense live (again, as the bio attests). And it’s true that “Adult Army,” with its mid-tempo furrow and echo-laden guitars, would sound pretty good with a crowd in front of it. The Death Set, whose record I used as a springboard for my own inability to get next to punk music, and any number of their kind (again, the Thermals come to mind), are described similarly. I almost never buy it, assuming that the describers are keen to head banging and volume as virtues unto themselves, but what needs highlighting is how, again, we’re left with a record full of caveats: if I don’t like it, and it’s not just a matter of being bored with rock or punk, well, this isn’t the way I’m supposed to experience Screaming Females anyway. Dust hands neatly.
I’m intentionally staying away from any of the easy hypocrisies associated with judging this kind of music’s authenticity, energy, or creativity in its admittedly small pen, though that would be the parlance critics are served best by resorting to. Suffice to say that it’s good music, and a good album, for fans of its kind. For the rest of us, let’s ignore that album cover and try to exult, however fleetingly, in the precedents that made Screaming Females a possibility.