There is a moment during every Screaming Females set when frontwoman Marissa Paternoster steps to the front of the stage and lets loose one of her virtuosic guitar solos, punctuating the New Brunswick, New Jersey trio’s thrashing about with some metal-style shredding and catchy riff-unspooling all at once, like she’s Tom Verlaine meets Eddie Van Halen meets Duane Allman or some shit. When her pummeling playing peaks, she reclines and ends up lying on her back, head hanging off the stage, horizontally ripping out the rest of the solo from the floor. Yes, this is as calculated as those stupid fucking orgasm faces all the wanky white boys crankin’ out blooz-rawk give to their crowds, or the moment when some Baby Boomer golden gawd wields his guitar like it’s the big dick he wishes he had, but Paternoster’s theatrics are different. She is turning guy-centric guitar heroics on their head.
Screaming Females began in 2005 and like every guitar band that matters since the ’90s, their approach was an inspired adjustment to the basic indie-rock template: They made catchy, gut-punching rock ‘n’ roll held down by worker-bee basslines from King Mike and stiff-upper-lip drumming from Jarrett Dougherty, but bolstered it with the complex, would-give-a-guitar-teacher-a-boner playing of Paternoster. The band is incredibly productive, releasing five full-length studio albums since 2006 and maniacally touring, scooping up a few big-deal supporters (they opened for Jack White’s the Dead Weather in 2009) while remaining doggedly D.I.Y. to this day, playing word-of-mouth basement and house shows, and reasonable, locally grown festivals like U+Nfest, happening this Friday and Saturday at the Ottobar. They play on Friday.
Then there’s Paternoster’s vocals, a mix of Bryan Ferry’s theatrical bray and Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney’s hiccuping howl, and her blunt lyrics. “I’m a rotten apple,” she matter-of-factly sings, half bad-girl boast, half good-kid-gone-bad lament, on ‘Rotten Apple’ off 2012’s “Ugly.” Then she chants “heaven forgive me, heaven forgot me now,” and if you know anything about Paternoster’s upbringing (she attended Catholic school and onstage usually sports a below-the-knee dress and black socks, essentially her school uniform from back in the day), you’ll realize those lyrics are less arch, ironic nods to religion than a gal-who-grew-up-with-this-shit kind of spleen vent.
Consider Paternoster an anti-singer-songwriter. Unlike the “sensitive” folkie type (usually a man, always petulant and wounded, and just as boring as the rock ‘n’ roll hero) who sings about how sympathetic and kind he is, Paternoster pens songs about her cruelty and anger and bad habits and a core disgust with herself (last year, she put out a drawing zine titled “My Body Is a Prison/My Mind is a Disease”) that any rightminded, properly inward-gazing human has if they are being truly honest with themselves. When words no longer express everything she’s trying to get out on ‘Rotten Apple,’ Robert Fripp-ian curls of guitar fly out of her instrument and get the job done.
“Woah, chicks can rock” is not the point here—that’s already been covered in too many thinkpieces about Carrie Brownstein or Kaki King or Miranda Lambert. So much so that it probably should’ve occurred to you by now that hey, these women aren’t anomalies and that one doesn’t need to and never needed to cherry-pick chicks who can do what the dudes can do because they are doing it and have been doing it. So, it’s not that, oh wow, they’re here all of a sudden, but that they’ve been here, and bring something that’s usually better and certainly more open-eyed and experienced to the genre that dudes have dominated for too damned long, and in 2014, when three to four grown-ass men take to rocking out, it seems utterly fucking decadent and antediluvian.
So back to Paternoster, prone, prodigiously shooting shards of skronk out to the audience, less self-congratulatory cock-rock preening than a don’t-look-at-me insular freak-out and therefore something altogether different from typical masculine rock-and-roll peacockery. During this moment, the crowd inevitably gathers around her, pulling out their iPhones to take pictures and video and Paternoster seems as though she is enduring, rather than enjoying, the adulation, as if the crowd is a byproduct of whatever she’s working out up there, or as if she’s sacrificing herself, giving over to the crowd’s stares, so that others, down the line or elsewhere, won’t have to deal.
And thus Paternoster on stage on the ground is just inherently more significant than dudes doing the same thing, like Nicki Minaj, best rapper alive, skewering the male gaze in one video and provoking it in another, and Amanda Petrusich embedding herself in the almost-entirely-male world of record collectors for her book “Do Not Sell At Any Price,” and Patricia Lockwood adjusting alt-lit quirky suburban boy solipsism via poems such as ‘Rape Joke,’ and Liz Pelly helming the webzine The Media out of the ashes of a shuttered alt-weekly, and the social-media social-justice work of @prisonculture, and the dick-pic critiquing of Madeleine Holden, and director Kat Candler in Baltimore a week ago screening “Hellion,” which pulls the posturing macho out of the metal movie, and the selfie stare-downs of Lindsay Bottos’ “Anonymous” project and Melissa Gira Grant schooling a crowd on the complexities of sex work at the Baltimore Book Festival last weekend, and Tanya Garcia’s ‘Contragolpe/Counterpunch’ at the Creative Alliance, and DJ AngelBaby reinvigorating club music, and Jenn Wasner captivating all those Baltimore bros listening to WTMD.
And U+Nfest organizers Dana Murphy and Emily Ferrara and a few of the bands you’ll encounter at the fest (which is just 20 bucks for two days by the way) including Ferrara’s own Big Mouth, plus Amanda X, Downtown Boys, and Wildhoney, and Baby Alcatraz, Young Coconut, JessPlumPear, and Don’tPanic, women DJs spinning upstairs during U+N, and well I could go on and on and on and on, now couldn’t I? But yours truly, just another guy getting paid to pontificate on Paternoster and these other inspirations, which is nearly as bad as strapping on a guitar and crankin’ out some sub-par rock songs myself, should probably just shut the fuck up now for the first time ever now, shouldn’t I?
Screaming Females play the U+Nfest, which starts on Oct. 3. The festival continues on Oct. 4. Go to theottobar.com for more information.