Friday, March 2, 2018

album review: 'all at once' by screaming females

So here's a hidden truth about being a music critic: in the age of the internet, you haven't heard everything, and you will never hear everything. And learning to reconcile that on some level is pretty much the only reason I haven't burned out nearly five years into this, and one reason I am so grateful Patreon provides some structure in my schedule. It doesn't mean I'm any less curious about everything that's out there or that I'm not kicking myself at the end of every year when I miss some record that's notched critical acclaim that I just didn't get a chance to cover, but it softens the blow a bit, especially considering my Patrons have a nice habit of pushing me outside my comfort zone, which is definitely healthy. That being said, since it's my policy to try and hear a band's entire discography before reviewing them in depth, it gets a tad exhausting when you see yet another indie rock band with considerable critical acclaim and a discography close to double digits wind up on my schedule. And it's not even that the bands are bad - it's typically got enough of a punk edge to stay exciting, the writing is often passable to pretty strong, the riffing is usually pretty well-developed, and at some point they typically get Steve Albini behind the production boards - but I also won't lie and say that unless the sound shifts significantly these records can start to run together a bit. 

Fortunately, it seems like five records in, Screaming Females realized this and started shifting up their formula after four pretty damn solid releases - my personal favourite favourite of those being Power Trip. For their fifth record in 2012 called Ugly, they brought in Steve Albini, tightened up the production and riffs, and crystallized their sound... only to swivel on their next full-length towards a crunchy brand of metal in 2015 on Rose Mountain that while was pretty likable didn't always flatter their more melodic guitar digressions or Marissa Paternoster's incensed, throaty vibrato. So when I heard they were heading closer towards mainstream rock radio on their newest collection... well, I had mixed expectations, given that they had kept Matt Bayles on production - and he's most well known for working with Mastodon on their pre-Crack The Skye years - and a swivel towards power-pop or pop punk seemed like uncharted territory, even if the critical consensus has generally been unsurprised by the pivot. Granted, said critics have also been giving this album the most praise Screaming Females have gotten since Ugly, so what the hell: how was All At Once?

So this is a little awkward for me, and I want to establish a few things before we get into the review proper: yes, All At Once by Screaming Females is a really good record, the sort of diverse but hard-edged indie rock record that might run a tad long but ultimately has enough flair and personality idiosyncratic to the band to stick the landing. It's also the sort of project that seems custom-designed to get a respectable amount of critical acclaim, and for good reason: the hooks are sharper, the melodies are more prominent, the writing fits into a mold that any critic growing up with 90s alternative rock will eat up in a heartbeat... and yet the more listens I gave this project, the more I found myself just a bit distant to it as a whole, more a project I can appreciate and respect than one I see myself revisiting all that often.

And I think we ought to start with the focal point of that distance: the content and lyrics, which if we're looking for the most pronounced callbacks to 90s alt-rock, it'd be here, more in writing style than content. Sure, the 90s had plenty of records full of unstable resentment, muted tension, self-deprecating paranoia and relationship situations that ranged from burned-out distance to uncomfortable claustrophobia, but in comparison with the personal detail that colored Rose Mountain, All At Once was aiming broader, matching the more scattered and varied compositions in their antipathy. Now how much of this broadness really clicks for a wider audience is up to debate - most of us are not subject to the waves of projection leveled against artists that can't retaliate, like the implied social media environment on 'Glass House', or the crushing weight of artistic expectations on 'Soft Domination' or the callback to minimalist painter 'Agnes Martin', or how much the final third of this record on songs like 'Fantasy Lens' and 'My Body' embrace sarcastic disdain in how hemmed in by that attention they feel. But at the same time, the band is canny enough to highlight how much they crave that attention regardless of the restrictions it might bring on songs like 'Bird In Space', a sadomasochistic side that shows them aching to wrench the power back however they can against an uncaring or openly hostile world - they might feel twinges of real fear exposing themselves to it on the closer 'Step Outside', or numb their senses to get through on 'Dirt', but on songs like 'I'll Make You Sorry' and 'End Of My Bloodline' the revenge is inevitable... and will probably consume them both.

Of course, all of this is conjecture - for as many declarative statements as Screaming Females uses, they're using blunt language in the same way many of the alt-rock bands in the 90s did, with an eye for sarcasm, ambiguity, and trying to read between the lines... and while that can be pretty damn effective for cultivating a seething feeling of tension, it can leave you waiting for a moment to wrench some form of thematic cohesion that'll never come. And that can leave you with the lingering feeling that without any moment of release, the punchline never cuts as deeply as it could, especially in comparison with the greater personal sentiments that came on their last two records. And I don't want to just single Screaming Females out in this - there's more of a core and sense of wry insight than so many of their forebears in the 90s than you probably remember - but for as much as Screaming Females are referencing the audience and enforcing a certain distance, Marissa Paternoster's potent vibrato and strident charisma does draw that crowd, certainly more than the sullen bellowing angst of her sonic ancestors. And it's that push-and-pull - only further emphasized by their tightest hooks and melodies to date - leaves me calculating how close one can even get and the unsettled feeling that there's disdain for me even making that calculation. And I get how pretentious that could sound, but when you have writing with this many disconnected, contradictory but firmly declarative statements on how you as the audience absorbs their music - emphasis on the pronoun 'you', which is used frequently across this project - you can either step back from emotional engagement or hop onboard the downward spiral of mutual self-destruction.

Or of course you can just ignore the lyrics as opaque and focus more on the production and hooks... and thankfully, that's pretty damn easy to do, as this is easily Screaming Females' most catchy and damn near accessible record to date with tracks like 'Glass House' and 'I'll Make You Sorry' with the prominent thrumming bass and great melodic hooks playing counterpoint to Paternoster's strident delivery. Yes, the tones are pretty accessible to mainstream rock radio, and while the band cycles through a number of styles I wouldn't say they're re-inventing the wheel with any of them, this is more of an example of a band proving they can be competitive in multiple arenas while still keeping their strengths as a three-piece. And when they do flesh out the mix like with the organ on 'Agnes Martin' or the more groove-driven, feedback swollen gloss of 'Chambers For Sleep I' or the absolutely terrific solo on 'Bird In Space' or the more jagged discordance of 'Fantasy Lens', it proves that this band wouldn't just clean up on rock radio nowadays, but also would have been competitive in the mid-90s where so much of their sound was rooted. Now not all the stylistic experiments work - I like the circular, brittle progression on 'Dirt' that strangely reminded me of Parquet Courts, but when it slips towards keyboard dreaminess on 'Deeply' it's less likable, and it gets even worse on 'End Of My Bloodline' with the increasingly muffled vocals and a groove that owes more to dub skitters than indie rock punchiness. And especially by the time you get to songs like 'My Body' and 'Drop By Drop', you notice there are more stylistic diversions that just cross the two minute mark that fully developed compositions that can hit as hard as their best.

But at the end of the day, this is one of those projects that the more I write and think about it, the more I like it, but it doesn't exactly prevent a certain amount of distance that persists, and that coupled with a few too many experiments that don't completely stick the landing means I'm not quite as invested as I'd like to be. I wouldn't put it above Ugly in my favourite Screaming Females records, but I will say if you're looking for a place to jump on-board with the band, All At Once is probably your easiest point of call. So me, very strong 7/10, definitely recommended, especially if you're more of a fan of this brand of 90s indie rock than I am. Otherwise, if you're a rock fan at all, it's hard to go wrong with something like this diverse and catchy, so definitely take the time to check it out!

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