A strong contender for guitar album of the year.
The newest Screaming Females video begins with front woman Marissa Paternoster in the guts of a ruined building. Bricks and rubble are her bedding as she lies down with her guitar on her stomach. It looks like the aftermath of a ticked-off construction crew, but if you know Screaming Females, it’s just as likely that Paternoster did that demo job herself.
The New Jersey based trio has always been defined by Paternoster’s Guitar Hero-level skills and absurdly muscular voice. But since their last record, 2015’s Rose Mountain, Screaming Females have waded further and further into pop hooks. These aren’t shimmering, polished things mind you. If it’s a Screaming Females album, you’re damn sure to get an ear full of actual screaming. But much like their grungy compatriots Titus Andronicus and Jeff Rosenstock, All at Once is brimming with catchiness, but never the sort of slight melodies you’d mistake for wispy weakness. The aforementioned video is for third track, “I’ll Make You Sorry,” a gritty but ultimately poppy workout based on Jarrett Dougherty’s chattering drum work and a sugar-sweet chorus that No Doubt would have killed for back in the day. But, as is contractually obligated for the band, it’s slathered with nastiness. Paternoster gets in a snaking guitar solo just before she beautifully, cruelly sings: “I once was in love before you.”
Though Screaming Females’ lyrics have often been a bit opaque, Paternoster’s narrative mindset focuses clearly on the claustrophobia of relationships and daily life. The wiggling rock nugget “Dirt” seems uncomfortable in its own skin, even at a mere two minutes. “Soft Domination” deals with the pleasure and brutality of sexual politics off an “Electioneering” type beat. “I’m piss-dry/ And I need you to know me/ So no one else owns me,” Paternoster growls before the Sleater-Kinney worthy chorus kicks in. It’s an uncomfortable, deeply real view of insecurity as love. “When they come to find me/ Then please burn my body,” Paternoster sings later. Is she admitting to her own witchy powers, or simply unwilling to let this world take control of her physical form, even after death? It’s strange to hear someone who comes off as the punk version of the Incredible Hulk be so vulnerable. But that’s one of the central dichotomies and seeming paradoxes that makes All at Once so captivating. It’s ear wormy and rampaging, open and obscure and always on the edge of insanity while being some of the tightest rock of recent memory.
If there’s anything holding All at Once back, it’s the number of tracks. Though a few songs clock in around the two-minute mark, Screaming Females aren’t taking the White Reaper/Melt Banana tactic of speeding every molecule of rock through the Large Hadron Collider, collapsing every bit of fat. It’s not so much that the trio have any duds here or on any of their albums, but the raw power on display may have worked better in a streamlined album. There’s something thrilling about the opening salvo of songs that does get slogged down by the time they hit the slower “Agnes Martin.” “Deeper” comes right after and seems like an experimental interlude. It’s a cool little thing, but breaks the album’s rolling momentum.
But these complaints are like chipped-off paint on a monster truck. This record is already a strong contender for guitar album of the year, and any chance to hear Paternoster’s Popstar gone warrior goddess never gets old. Screaming Females don’t make bad albums, and they haven’t broken the streak with All at Once.