There is a line forming outside Main Street Music in Manayunk. Someone passes out wristbands. “There are more of you than we expected, so you’ll need to wear this.” We fasten the green strips to our wrists while the band we’re all lining up to see, Screaming Females, loads into the record store. They’re preparing to play their new album Desire Pathway in full for the crowd of less than 100 who pack into the cozy record store.
This appearance marks the last of three sets Screaming Females played over the weekend to celebrate the release of their eighth studio album. The first two saw the band returning to White Eagle Hall, in their home state of New Jersey, for their now-annual Garden Party Festival, which took place Friday, February 17th and Saturday, February 18th. Armand Hammer, Nina Nastasia, and Truth Cult played night one (plus aftershow sets from Sug Daniels and Paisley Fields at nearby Pet Shop). Night two featured performances by Gel, Catbite, and Laura Stevenson. Screaming Females, of course, closed out both nights. You can see photos from all the night two artists’ sets by scrolling to the bottom here.
To call Desire Pathway Screaming Females’ best album (in a long line of stellar albums) is a bold claim, but we call it like we see it here at Left of the Dial, and the album is extraordinary. Screaming Females have always had a distinct sound, wholly their own, so it’s not that they’ve suddenly found their voice with this release. Rather, this is a confident band playing to their strengths while also allowing for new possibilities. “Brass Bell,” which opens Desire Pathway, is a perfect example of this. If you’ve been lucky enough to see the band live in the last year or so, you may have heard them play this song. On the album, “Brass Bell” opens with a groovy little synth line, but it quickly devolves and is overtaken by the big, crunchy sound we’ve come to associate with Screaming Females. It’s a huge song with a booming chorus. It features Paternoster’s unmistakable vibrato and a dirge-like guitar solo supported by her bandmates, bassist “King” Mike Abbate and drummer Jarrett Dougherty, who make up Screaming Females’ steadfast rhythm section.
“Desert Train,” the second track on the album, is equally charged, opening with a cheeky guitar riff not unlike something you’d find by Ennio Morricone in one of Sergio Leone’s iconic westerns. Like “Brass Bell” though, it quickly melts away to reveal Screaming Females’ distinct sound. Hearing “Desert Train” live, the crowd at Main Street is quickly swept up by it, bobbing and bouncing along to what is likely the first time many of those in attendance are hearing the frenetic song with its insistent chorus and blistering solo.
Commenting on every standout moment on this album would make for a very long review and would take away from some of the joy of listening to this album yourself. There is so much to love here. Desire Pathway feels so fully Screaming Females, but it is also new and evolved, and there are enough surprises to keep you listening intently from start to finish. One of the surprises that we will comment on, though, is “So Low,” a spare ballad that shows up on the back half of the album. It’s a quiet, lonely thing played delicately on acoustic guitar. In general, “quiet” and “delicate” are two of the least appropriate adjectives to describe Screaming Females’ sound, but when Paternoster joined us on the podcast the week the album was announced, she spoke about working to include the softer side of her voice: “I have a big, brassy voice. I’m loud, but I’m getting better at accessing the more breezy, quiet-sounding voice that I always wish that I naturally had access to.”
It’s obvious here on “So Low,” and it works well considering the plaintive longing that hums through this track. It’s maybe even more striking, however, when she brings out this side of her voice on a song like “Beyond the Void,” which is closer to Screamales’ signature sound, but Paternoster’s vocals float more lightly atop the song. This, in contrast to what they often do, which is dig in deep with the other instruments, bending and wailing around the lyrics. In fact, one of the things that makes Paternoster such a unique vocalist is her tendency to use her voice almost like a second guitar (a good example of this is the chorus of “Bell” off Power Move). On Desire Pathway, more than any of their releases so far, the band appears to be keenly aware of how affecting it can be to play with these dynamics.
The band end their set at Main Street playing the Desire Pathway closer, “Titan,” a song that fades out on one of Paternoster’s scorching solos–lest we forget that Screaming Females are, first and foremost, a rock and roll band. The lucky 75 or so of us who made it inside Main Street look around at one another, laughing and shaking our heads at just how incredibly good this album is and what a gift it was to hear it played in such an intimate setting, especially on the heels of the two packed-out shows at White Eagle earlier that weekend.
In the week since, Screamales have stayed busy, sharing a playlist of songs that inspired Desire Pathway, taking part in a Reddit AMA, and announcing a handful of shows in the Northeast with Iron Chic this April and that they’ll be playing Montreal’s Pouzza Fest in May. Screaming Females’ Desire Pathway tour kicks off March 4th at Alice’s Champagne Palace in Homer, Alaska and covers just about every inch of the United States (sorry Hawaii). Don’t miss it.
Pick up Desire Pathway, out now on Don Giovanni Records.
All photos, except where indicated, by Alec Pugliese.