Castle Talk presents a seemingly minor but very real problem for young bands today: Is it possible for a band to regress by focusing more on songwriting? The rock canon is littered with excellent rock weirdos who got more popular (but not, in every case, better) as they went more melodic. While Castle Talk may be the fourth proper album by Screaming Females, the band members are still in their early 20s and gained national exposure only two years ago, after releasing their breakthrough third LP, Power Move. The newfound attention may or may not have influenced the songwriting, but to my ears, Castle Talk sounds like a forced attempt at “maturing” that ends up watering down what made Power Move so enthralling.
With Castle Talk, it seems that Marissa Paternoster and company have been listening to a little less Voidoids and Sleater-Kinney and a little more latter-day Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. It is much more bass and drums happy than Power Move is, and Paternoster’s guitar heroics are fewer and further between. Which wouldn’t be a problem if the songs were compelling enough to stand without the guitar thrashing. But at this stage of the band’s career, the stage where the band can win over a major festival audience just as well as it can a hole-in-the-wall rock club, Screaming Females is entirely dependent on Paternoster’s delirious guitar wailing.
If “Bell” established Power Move‘s hard rock guitar-centric theme, than “Laura & Marty” establishes the kind of playful, rhythm-happy tracks to be found on the album, with the inconsistent piercings of Paternoster’s guitar screech that pop up intermittently to the point of being frustrating. Paternoster’s lyrics have always been abstract at the risk of being insubstantial, which is natural given the band’s age, but the more coherent lyrical songs on Castle Talk are less personal and more pandering to their audiences. And though she’s always been an underrated singer, the basement-budget production isn’t helping here, either.
Castle Talk sounds more like Baby Teeth and What If Someone Is Watching Their TV?, the band’s first two albums, which were both fine garage albums but lacked the unhinged, enthralling sound behind every single song on Power Move. In that way, this is a lapse for a band that has nothing but goodwill built up for it. But this is a young band responding to perceived pressures rather than playing to its strengths. Presumably, the larger presence of King Mike’s bass and Jarrett Dougherty’s drums are an attempt to be more democratic and deflect the focus from Paternoster’s “girl who can rock” appeal. But the band members would be deluding themselves if they believed that the band’s biggest musical draw was anything but Paternoster.
On the album’s best tracks, like “I Don’t Mind It” and “A New Kid,” Paternoster is front and center, and she’s also using more guitar pedals. This is likely a better path for her to pursue than throwaways like “Deluxe” (after all, it was shoegaze, not grunge, that ended up providing the most fruitful source of guitar-rock innovation in the last 20 years). “Ghost Solo,” the album’s closer, is easily one of the highlights of a fast-building and impressive catalog. Screaming Females are too talented for Castle Talk to be anything but a solid album. But “solid” is a word I never wanted to use for Screaming Females.