Sometimes heroes come in dazzling outfits. More often, though, they’re haggard wrecks who eke out their heroism the hard way. The same goes for guitar heroes. Case in point: Screaming Females. The New Jersey trio specializes in scattershot concoctions of punchy indie rock and scratchy post-punk. But on their fifth album, Ugly, singer-guitarist Marissa Paternoster and crew have gotten even more ragged. And therein lies their triumph. Not only does Ugly set a new standard for the band, it’s also a grubby, triumphant call to action.
True to the band’s stock-in-trade, that action is a total, glorious mess. Ever the underdogs, Screaming Females stock Ugly with anthemic kiss-offs like “It All Means Nothing,” in which Paternoster sarcastically sneers, “I want to buy everything you sell.” Meanwhile, she’s dishing up copious samples of fluid, infectious riffs. And they doesn’t let up. It can’t be understated: Paternoster ought to wear a cape with a guitar on it. On “Rotten Apple,” she turns what is essentially a song-length solo into a barrage of pop hooks. And when the album sags a bit in the middle—taking on a Yeah Yeah Yeahs-like tone that brings Paternoster’s helium squeal down to a slow hiss—it gives Paternoster even more space for blistering string-mangling. “Expire” is a sweet-and-sour, surf-punk valentine; “Doom 84” stomps like a goth Led Zeppelin.
The disc’s third act kicks off with “Help Me,” a monstrously catchy sing-along in which Paternoster weaves barbed harmonies with herself—only her duet partner is her fretboard. Everything from Dinosaur Jr. to The Woods-era Sleater-Kinney bleeds through her fingertips. String-laden closer “It’s Nice” is as bracingly irony-free as the rest of the album. A power ballad in the most unapologetic sense, it pushes Screaming Females’ melodic ambition to the breaking point—and then pushes through to the other side. As heroics go, it doesn’t get any braver than this.