It’s kind of insane how much Screaming Females improve with each record. 2010’s Castle Talk was a stellar punky effort from the band with a few classic rock guitar moments. Talk’s follow-up, Ugly, gloriously ups the ante on Marissa Paternoster’s many guitar tricks. It’s almost a cliché at this point to call each Screaming Females album the group’s best, but that’s a good thing.
But first, can we talk about Steve Albini for a sec? I know he doesn’t like to be called a "record producer," only an "engineer," but as soon as the drums kick in on opening track “It All Means Nothing,” it’s pretty clear who’s recording this band. All these years after Nirvana’s In Utero, it’s obvious that Albini is still the go-to guy for recording drums. He also highlights guitars a whole lot here. Structurally, the songs on Ugly aren’t really that different from those on Castle Talk, but the shift in emphasis is a huge departure.
Albini’s true gift is bringing out what already resides within bands. He isn’t someone who bends them to what he thinks they should sound like, even though his production definitely has a signature. Castle Talk found Screaming Females operating from more of a surf rock retro punk style; here, they come off like a mix between the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s psych-rock escapades and Archers of Loaf’s alternative anger. Point is, the guitar sounds amazing.
That all being said, Screaming Females still can’t quite sustain their rock assaults for an entire record, and Ugly sags a little wee bit in the middle, much like Castle Talk did. But the songs that are out and out great certainly compensate. “It All Means Nothing” is a pounding alt-rocker that should get heads a-bobbing. “Rotten Apple” packs such a catchy chorus that, years from now, historians from another planet will mostly hold it up as an example of how SF totally could have been bigger if all the squares in mainstream America weren’t so dim. The best moment on the record, though, comes on “Leave It All Up to Me.” That track just slays all around as Paternoster fires off some spicy licks. There’s a thoroughly rocking outro to this one that could solve all wars. Seriously. Just put that coda on repeat and boom, no more misunderstanding or intolerance ever again. You’re welcome, people of the future.
What’s funny about calling Ugly an indie rock record is that it has roots in a bevy of established rock ‘n’ roll styles from the last 50 years. In a better, happier world, this kind of stuff would be the standard, not the underground.