Don Giovanni Records
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
“It’s been a slow birth,” intones Screaming Females singer-guitarist Marissa Paternoster near the close of the New Jersey crew’s fifth album.
Paternoster could be singing about the trio’s steady evolution since bursting onto the scene as punk rock noisemakers in the mid-2000s — an evolution that continues with the career-best “Ugly.”
The songs here are bigger and more expansive than anything the group has released in the past. “Doom 84,” for one, stretches out over seven-plus minutes, alternating between hard-charging passages and comparatively mellow side treks. Despite the budding sense of maturity, however, the band has lost none of the nervous energy of its younger days. Paternoster still bleats, squeals, shrieks, whines and slurs more than she sings, and her guitar often follows suit, revving like a muscle car, sighing, backfiring, clawing and eroding into feedback.
Always a skilled player, Paternoster emerges as a force of nature here. She drives the darkly rhythmic “Red Hand” with cat-scratch guitar, runs “Tell Me No” through the shredder and lays down a flurry of riffs on “Extinction” that called to mind one of those old comic strip brawls between Andy Capp and Flo, all limbs and dust and balled fists.
Drummer Jarett Dougherty and bassist King Mike match the frontwoman’s intensity throughout, and some songs, like the explosive “5 High,” don’t end so much as they derail, coming unglued like a doomed space shuttle disintegrating amidst the earth’s atmosphere.
Lyrically, Paternoster sounds as obsessed with the concept of memory as Jim Carrey in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” singing: “Help me forget”; “I want to erase you”; “I’m crushed under your memory.”
Thankfully, most of these lingering ghosts have been washed away by the album-closing “It’s Nice,” a pretty, acoustic number as unexpected as it is riveting. “I feel just like a little child,” Paternoster coos atop a delicate cascade of violins, sounding ready for a long-overdue nap after fitfully exorcising her many demons.