By Nick Statt
It doesn’t take much to grasp the surface of the Screaming Females. She still screams. She also shreds on guitar…and I mean really melts faces. Marissa Paternoster, the female third of the group, is the she in question and alongside bassist “King Mike” and drummer Jarrett Dougherty, this three-piece New Brunswick, NJ band traverses punk, pop and downright avant-garde rock with a disarming intensity.
In the past, the once ever-present catch was that they were far from accessible; the screaming, the guitar solos and Paternoster’s normal, but still weird-as-hell, vocal style crafted a love or hate relationship with almost every listener. It gave them one of the most unique sounds out there, but constrained them to the underground New Jersey punk scene. Since then, they’ve made steps simply by opening for guys like Ted Leo and playing big festivals in and around the Northeast.
But their latest release, Castle Talk, due out September 14, sees the band reaching unimaginable heights. Gone are almost all of the screaming choruses and punchy punk instrumentals. Instead, you get some of the most melodic arrangements I’ve ever heard, decorated with a surprisingly mainstream approach to songwriting. They’re arguably not the same band, and that may be a pretty big betrayal to the die-hard fans. But it’s also their best album to date and very well may push them into a whole new realm of popularity.
Paternoster, the most significant and mystifying component of the Screaming Females, is mind-blowing on Castle Talk. Her guitar work retains its famous strangeness, but is now refined to an unbelievable level. She shifts from melodic clean riffs to effect-heavy solos with virtuosic ease, and still manages to stamp her trademark obsession with vibrato on every note. Vocally, she no longer rips out those huge screaming highs, but replaces them with a most impressive range of styles throughout every single track.
“Laura and Marty” couldn’t be a better opening song. It delivers everything you could want from a textbook Screaming Females song, but adds in subtle clues, like the slow and soothing bridge right before the big fireworks display at the end, to indicate how the rest of the album will pan out.
Castle Talk takes off from there with the follow up track, the alarmingly poppy “I Don’t Mind It.” They go completely soft and serene on the third track, “Boss,” and master the perfect middle-ground of their sound with the next track, “Normal,” which also happens to feature one of the most satisfying guitar breaks Paternoster has ever composed.
The album hits a real sweet spot for the entire middle portion because it displays a good mixture of the tamer, new direction and the old infamous intensity over the course of four to five tracks. But it ends with “Ghost Solo,” easily one of the poppiest songs in their entire catalogue, which neatly ties up the tone of the whole album neatly and expresses quite plainly that this is what they’re aiming for now.
Castle Talk is clearly a departure from their previous sound, but in an undeniably positive direction. You can lament at the loss of their roots all you want and at the end of the day, you may very well win an argument that the true Screaming Females’ sound is marked by the previous three albums. But this album is not just accessible, it’s a matured and amazing product of three New Jersey punk-influenced musicians that have finally become comfortable with the versatility of their sound. Whether or not they will still be the Screaming Females a year from now isn’t really the point.