I have a swiss cheese of an argument regarding rehashing old song subject matter that I’d like to support with a couple of opposing quotes from Ravi Shankar and Joe Strummer:
“[Ultimately], the wisdom that places materiality on top of a poetic hierarchy and abstraction at its bottom, the breed of thinking which doubtlessly has strengthened the verse of many poets, nonetheless has become a kind of dogma that stifles poetic expression and repels us from exploring a crucial escarpment upon the peaks of Mount Parnassus.” –Ravi Shankar, In Praise of Abstraction: Moving Beyond Concrete Imagery
“Maybe too many songs have been written about love already, subjects covered.” –Joe Strummer, Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder, 1981
I don’t think I wholly agree with Joe Strummer, but if the context were regarding modern garage/psych/pop groups inspired by garage/psych/pop from the 60s, I would say that the “love” subject has been very well covered. My biggest complaint regarding current garage-ers and gaze-ers is that there seems to be a lot of rehashing rather than channeling, and like Ravi Shankar’s quote above, the approach to songs focused on boys/girls seems stiflingly dogmatic (examples here, here, and here). Part of my argument is that this continuation of the teen-pop love song has turned the abstract of love into a concrete, a sort of uninventive given regarding the sound, and although there’s a clash (he he he) between the two quotes presented, they both share the desire of moving toward something different.
Here’s why I like Grass Widow’s Internal Logic and Grass Widow in general: they channel their influences (ranging from harmonious vocal groups to female-fronted punk/post-punk groups to The Kinks) into something more creatively expressive than some of their contemporaries; they contrast their angular elements against their sixth-sense-like ability to move harmony lines between all three members; and they take an approach toward the metaphorically abstract.
Take for example the song “Spock on MUNI,” whose title references this scene from Star Trek IV, but the actual song and lyrics not so much. Maybe the title refers to a focal point for the song’s origins, but the song itself gives off nothing for your Trekkie to feed from. The song is lyrically minimal, focused around an “All in your head/ La la la la la” chorus (which, by the way, is the most powerful and affecting use of the “la la” phonetic clich— since Thee Oh Sees’ “I Was Denied”) and hinges more on its frantic riffing contrasting against its Cali-harmony chorus. Point being that the only constant of the garage songwriting pantheon here is the “la la”s, yet there’s nothing to hang a concrete metaphor on. I dunno about no Mount Parnassus, but it’s definitely a welcome move away from the saccharine novelty of “boy/girl” songs.
Elsewhere, the lyrics address wonder and intrigue with the unknown, the area of possibility. These are the complete lyrics to the first song “Goldilocks Zone:” “Looking at the sky/ I wanted to find your whole life/ I don’t know you/ Just right.” The term “Goldilocks Zone” refers to an astronomical term for the “habitable zone” of a planet — that is, the distance from a star at which a planet can form and maintain an atmosphere similar to Earth’s. The lyrics aren’t dense or oversaturated with metaphorical abstraction, but there are just enough non-absolutes to guide one toward interpretation. The base of the song is plain enough: someone staring into the stars wondering what the life of someone on the hypothetical distant planet is like. The only thing absolute about the song is the impossibility of fully knowing, and all of that comes out of four lines and a title. Although the ‘space’ thing is commonplace in the garage-psych canon, the song in hand with the music (and its computer noise à la David Bowie’s “Andy Warhol”) feel like a much more grounded take on the space metaphor than its usually druggy counterpart.
While the lyrical part works in abstracts/abstraction (there are times where the lyrics themselves are somewhat unintelligible), the music shows a more constrained approach compared to their previous album, Past Time. Whereas Past Time seemed to suffer from a lack of dynamic both inside and between the various songs, there’s a lot more contrast at play on Internal Logic. Some of Grass Widow’s angular qualities have been traded in for more straightforward pop sensibilities, which are played out very nicely. It seems as if they’ve taken a cue from their Kinks influence, specifically the “Lola”/”Arthur”/”Village Green” so-called “golden era” and pieced together a much more cohesive album, as well as letting their songs occasionally revolve around guitar bridges and riffs (think “Powerman”). There are two short instrumental tracks, the most effective being “A Light in the Static,” a sort of classical guitar-sounding piece that acts as both a halfway marker and an excellent foil to the fury-riff of “Spock on MUNI.”
Internal Logic is a well-constructed album, more punk than post-, stronger in its ideas, and a welcome departure from so-called “love” songs prevalent in modern bands inspired by the early 60s. It’s a strong statement from the band and a treat for those who revel in such influences.