February 23, 2013

Album Review: Screaming Females' Chalk Tape EP

Screaming Females had a bittersweet 2012. The front end of the year showed only promise as theirs to lose with the New Jersey indie-punk trio teaming up with legendary alt-rock audio auteur Steve Albini in the studio to record their biggest guitar-shredder to date in Ugly (which ranked #12 on AS' 25 Best Albums list.) Before the start of a what was to be an incredible string of shows in support of their latest alongside fellow breakthroughs Ceremony, frontwoman Marissa Paternoster was dealt a scary health setback after contracting an aggressive form of mono that made it painful for her to undertake their typically relentless live schedule. Aside from a huge opportunity opening for Garbage in the fall, the band birthed from the basement scene stayed off the road and holed up in New Brunswick until Paternoster's physical well-being returned to 100%. Active hands like Screaming Females can't be expected to remain idle regardless, making the most out of life's lemons with a DIY concept project of basement recordings made under the gun with no retakes. The end result, the limited cassette / digital release Chalk Tape, is loose and understandably less focused like early Screaming Females' material, but also shows signs that their penchant to pop rather than rock is coming together more naturally than ever.

With greater attention being put on repetitive hooks rather than breakdowns comes only a short-form version of Screaming Females' potential. Six of the seven tracks on Chalk Tape clock in at around or under the two-and-a-half-minute mark, leaving in their wake the bare essentials of a spread of ideas and style concepts that would otherwise hold their own given more time and fleshed out instrumentation (then again, the concept of the EP was to avoid that altogether.) The "quieter" moments on Castle Talk and Ugly often equated to a tuneful equilibrium between the guitar-bass-drum three-piece, but here, only part of the group effort is apparent when Screaming Females resist their natural inclination to shred and stomp (King Mike's digging bass in "Sick Bed," Paternoster holding her own on "Bad Men" by going darkly unplugged or requiring a downsized assist from Jarrett Dougherty's percussive talents on "Into the Sun"'s psychedelic groove.) It in turn inadvertently strengthens the areas of the EP where the fly-by-night recordings seemed to have all three working on the same level, such as its sinister post-punk standout "Poison Arrow" or its closer "Green Vapors," a quirky helping of crunchy pop-punk featuring Brooklyn DIY flag bearers and labelmates, Shellshag.

Chalk Tape is a successful experiment from Screaming Females in light of a pretty tough year, yet it's also an anomaly in their catalog that wouldn't be fair to compare against the trio's proper efforts. Its imperfections and lacking linearity are worn proudly, more often than not besting the efforts of their counterparts who might spend hours of studio time on end to pull off similar results. Paternoster's signature wail alongside her bandmates aggressive thirst to thrash are mostly amiss in favor of simple pop song structures throughout this short listen, but if they can collectively take the ideas they've introduced here into the next album, then reaping the rewards of progress should come much more quickly (hopefully with far less unexpected hurdles to get over) than it has recently.

Screaming Females' Chalk Tape EP is available now on Don Giovanni Records.

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