ALBUMS: February 2023 In Review
Digging into new albums by Paramore, Shonen Knife and Screaming Females
I have to be honest. February turned into one of those months where I easily could have a monthly review with more than double the usual three.
Kelela’s first album in six years — Raven — is bound to make some year-end lists. Yo La Tengo made their first-ever self-contained album, raising a racket with This Stupid World. Janet Weiss, recovered from a car accident, teamed up with Sam Coomes again for Quasi’s solid Breaking the Balls of History. And the Raincoats’ Gina Birch, at the tender age of 67, released her first solo album — I Play the Bass Loud — which is exactly what one would hope it would be.
All that and the Gorillaz’ latest, and less overstuffed than you’d expect: Cracker Island (which was somehow not the title of a Jimmy Buffett album).
But I decided on two other returns from bands that hadn’t released albums since before the pandemic — Paramore and Screaming Females. Plus, a band that seemingly takes few breaks — Shonen Knife — continues its recent surge of quality efforts.
For a time, if one wasn’t paying attention, they might have thought that Paramore’s 2017 After Laughter might be their last.
This wasn’t one of those situations where there was acrimony like there was in the band’s past. But Hayley Williams had released two well-received solo albums. She was also busy with business interests, including her hair product line — Good Dye Young.
Zac Farro had his own musical projects while Taylor York produced Williams’ second album.
The reality was much more simple. The band members needed a break, so they took one. They stuck to the plan, dealing things in their personal lives while management stood back and didn’t push.
Then, rather than throw themselves back into Paramore work during the pandemic, the trio didn’t force the issue, concentrating on other matters until they were ready to return to the studio in 2022.
Album: This Is Why
Label: Fueled By Ramen/Atlantic
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
On her Everything Is Emo podcast last year, Williams suggested Bloc Party was something of a North Star for the album.
“From day one, Bloc Party was the number one reference because there was such an urgency to their sound that was different to the fast punk or the pop punk or the like, loud wall of sound emo bands that were happening in the early 2000s,” she said.
The final result isn’t devoid of modern post-punk influences, but it’s not exactly pure, uncut post-punk, either (that would be the Gina Birch album).
There are elements of danceable pop. Things get more subdued and even flirt with dream pop in the latter half.
Paramore gradually expanded on their sound until they embraced a love of ’80s synthesizers on 2017’s After Laughter.
Whatever the elements in a particular song, they’ve mostly succeeded in making them sound like themselves, rather than Paramore doing musical cosplay.
Part of the reason is Williams’ lyrics, which have always reflected a certain honesty, this time tempered with growth.
The Hayley Williams lyrics for a song like “Misery Business” would be different these days. The band isn’t in their teens and early 20s anymore. Plus, Williams continues to address her mental health issues with therapy, telling Zane Lowe on Apple Beats 1 in 2020, ““I was too young to understand why do I do this? Because I was making a lot of mistakes in my personal life. I was self-sabotaging left and right. And I joke about it in songs, Paramore songs, but it’s not funny to live it, right?”
One result was that Williams worked on removing baggage from being vulnerable, which showed in her solo work and extends to This Is Why.
Take the back half’s beguiling “Liar”, a low-key gem about denying falling in love when past situations led you to distrust that positive instinct, something Williams went through when she realized she was falling for York.
The shimmering “Crave” may ostensibly be about nostalgia, but it also feels like it’sabout, if not letting go of regret, having it in its proper place.
“Thick Skull”, the first song written for the album, was chosen to end it. The lyrics might read as self-lacerating until you realize that they’re more reflective than that.
“I think I’ve limited myself because it scares me what people are going to say about the band or about me character-wise. I don’t know, you see people say shit like, “It’s the Hayley Williams Show” or whatever.… The subject matter of Thick Skull is like: what if all of that was true? Would it even matter?,” Williams told the CBC.
Not it’s all an exercise in “what if?” The scenario of forgetting to bring flowers (and bourbon, as it turns out) to a neighbor in “Running Out of Time” actually happened. assssdewr
The driving “The News” is definitely much closer to the stated influence of Bloc Party, Foals and others. It tackles the point where the need to stay informed of goings-on is an impossible task when there’s so many important things swirling with crap in the information stream that it overwhelms.
““C’est Comme Ça” is a companion piece where the battle is to accept the parts of your life that are more certain with all of that uncertainty around you, complete with some lyrical wit (“I’m off caffeine on doctor’s orders/Said it was gonna help to level out my hormones/Lucky for me, I run on spite and sweet revenge”).
Williams said she recorded 2020’s Petals For Amor and 2021’s Flowers For Vases/Descansos to show herself she could do it, knowing also that they wouldn’t sound like Paramore.
And there’s a clear chemistry here. Williams and York have been in the band since the beginning. Farro was away from the band for seven years, but only missed one album in his time away. Between York’s and Farro’s contributions to the writing to the precise playing they supply, it would be clear this was still very much a band even if Williams’ solo records sounded more like Paramore.
They work the post-punk elements into their particular pop songcraft, like the guitar on “Big Man, Little Dignity”, the takedown of men who somehow never face the consequences of their actions. Similarly, the urgency of the verse music with again, a nice line (“”Turns out I’m living in a horror film / Where I’m both the killer and the final girl”) giving way to the type of punchy chorus Paramore’s done well since before they were old enough to legally drink.
It’s not as if the group’s members have been kids for a long time, but this is an album that they could have only made at this point — strong in its interplay, assured in its craft and more willing to explore.
That said, as much as bands like Paramore receive deserved praise for exhilarating creative exploration, there’s something to be said for other bands that know what they do well and stay in their lane.
AC/DC has made a whole career out of it (notice nary an attempt at electronica or nu metal from them back in the day?). Likewise, the Ramones never strayed far when putting out 14 albums over 19 years.
Shonen Knife, clearly fans of the latter, learned that lesson as well. Applying what they were taught into their fifth decade, their latest — Our Best Place — is another example.
Artist: Shonen Knife
Album: Our Best Place
Label: Good Charamel
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
The Shonen Knife formula seems simple enough. Don’t overload songs with an excess of chords. Keep things quick and catchy. Don’t be afraid of writing songs about food.
That simplicity is deceptive. The songs have to have enough energy to keep from dissolving into the twee ether. The hooks have to be there. And you’ve got to come up with lyrics to match the mood.
It’s not a formula that the band itself was always able to execute successfully, particularly in the midway point of their career.
But over the last decade or so, Shonen Knife picked things up again. With Our Best Place, they’re playing with similar spirit as they showed when guitarist/singer Naoko Yamano and her bassist sister Atsuko (then the drummer) were in the lineup on that terrific initial run of albums. Together with current drummer Risa Kawano, who joined the band eight years ago at 22, they set the mood from the get-go.
“MUJINTO Rock” does their pseudonymous inspirations from Queens proud, a chorus that sticks delivered with expert kick.
The tempo’s even faster on “Ocean Sunfish”, which the trio tears into like it’s their debut and they have something to prove.
Shonen Knife’s best work is a reminder that pop punk can’t work without the pop. “Nice Day”, whose intent is utterly, ironically happy, puts one in the mind of the Go-Go’s (who doubtless had similar influences across the Pacific at the same time).
And being a band that’s had songs through their catalog like “I Wanna Eat Cookies”, “Sushi Bar”, “Wasabi”, “Banana Chips” and “Ramen Rock”, there are indeed more songs about food.
The songwriting tactic came about because Naoko, when she started writing, was self-conscious writing about matters of the heart. So she turned to another universal topic– matters of the culinary.
“Vamos Taquitos” gets the head bobbing while making one crave Mexican food and a beverage or two to wash it down.
“Spicy Veggie Curry” rocks harder with nifty chorus harmonies, delivered with enough verve to make one look for the nearest takeout menu.
And one could even enjoy some “Afternoon Tea” later, the song offering a mixture of classic British pop with a performance that makes one wonder how they never made an appearance on “Yo Gabba Gabba!”.
This could all be cloying, but the band delivers it with such joy and punch that they can win over all but the most curmudgeonly.
That joy comes through in lovely fashion in the mid tempo “Better” as easily as it does in the punkily irresistible “Girl’s Rock.”
As one more reminder of their love for pop’s past, they cover not the Ramones, but ’70s one-hit wonders (in America) Pilot. But instead of that hit (“Magic”), they take on the song that preceded it on the Scottish band’s debut record.
“Just a Smile” deserved to be a hit here (almost as much as UK No. 1 “January” did). Shonen Knife connects with what made the original work, giving it a garage charm of their own.
Despite famous fans like Kurt Cobain and a major label deal in the ’90s, Shonen Knife remained a cult band. Decades later, Our Best Place, is crafted so sturdily, craftily and happily that it’s a reminder that this cult is worth belonging to.
For folks of a certain age on social media, there is that subset of people who will insist that there is “no good rock music anymore” while wondering “where are the guitars?”
Just because there are fewer rock stations and just because there was a long desire to stick to classic rock rather than introduce new bands, it got difficult to find. But, it is still out there. Case in point is the latest from New Jersey’s Screaming Females.
Artist: Screaming Females
Album: Desire Pathway
Label: Don Giovanni Records
★★★★1/4 (4.25/5 stars)
The band — guitarist/singer Marissa Paternoster, bassist Mike Abbate and drummer Jarrett Dougherty — packs a lot into its 33 minutes and change while keeping it economical. If it’s extended eight to twenty minute jams you’re looking for, you won’t find it on Desire Pathway.
You will find a lot of riffage, however. The band kept things basic because it felt truer to the material.
“We had rhythm guitar on some demos, and it sounded great, then when we did it in the studio, we were like, ‘That sounds like too much, take it out,'” Paternoster told Guitar. “We sat back and listened to it, and we’re like, ‘Well, at the very least, that’s what people are gonna hear when we play.’ Nothing could be more true than what we’re hearing right now, and it sounds good. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
Don’t be fooled by the increasingly distorted synth that opens the album. About 35 seconds into “Brass Bell”, the first riff kicks in. Soon enough, there’s a squall over the deft rhythm section and things are off and running.
“Desert Train” is even more ferocious, seemingly destined to leave ears ringing at the band’s live shows.
It’s been five years since we’ve heard from them. Desire Pathway’s songs date back to before the pandemic. Paternoster resisted the temptation to tinker with the lyrics during the unplanned time off, also taking time to record a solo album — 2021’s Peace Meter.
So we get a breakup album that’s years after the breakup, but with the emotion and honesty still intact. And, it should be said, lyrically Paternoster pulls off honing in without being overly specific. It hits directly enough to touch the nerves of someone who’s gone through a breakup. But a lot of the lyrics are open-ended enough to connect on other emotional levels.
A lot of bases get touched along the way. “Let You Go” opens with a moody feel, then adds enough sludgy guitar crunch to remind you that this album was recorded at the same studio that Nirvana did In Utero.
“So Low” pretty much strips things down to Paternoster’s voice and guitar, an affecting respite in the middle of the guitar heroics.
It’s a testament to where Screaming Females are at this point in their career that they can connect with intimate honesty with the amps turned up to 11 as well as they can with them dialed back.
As much as this is Paternoster’s show, and with her guitar wizardry and powerful voice, it is, that’s not the full equation. Screaming Females have had the same lineup since their inception and it shows in the sure-footed tightness and the intuitive interplay. Even with a star up front, this is still very much a band (and a good one at that).
On album closer “Titan”, they kick up a racket reminiscent of moments that Smashing Pumpkins’ did on Gish, only with more multi tracked vocals (making Paternoster her own backing) than guitar.
They’re even more locked in on “Mourning Dove”, which takes a break from launching a fleet of air guitars to have the heaviness serve up some outright catchiness.
“Beyond the Void” has a lilting sway while also echoing the way the Screaming Trees later work could get under the skin.
“Let Me Into Your Heart” is melodic without sacrificing soaring guitars, as close as the album gets to classic rock guitar epic.
Screaming Females came up playing basement punk shows, but even in their earliest moments on record, they showed an affinity for hard rock. The lessons learned from those days are still intact 20 years later.
Guitar record it may be, Screaming Females throw in all their ideas without overstaying their welcome. Wonderfully produced, it shows that good new guitar rock is still being made, if one isn’t too busy complaining to seek it out.
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