Grass Widow Past Time

[Kill Rock Stars; 2010]

Styles: post-punk, riot grrrl, pop
Others: Raincoats, Kleenex, Brilliant Colors

It’s nothing but laziness to lump Grass Widow in with current crop of girl-group revivalists, the Best Vivian Dum Dum Girls Coasts et al. Not that you’d blame someone much for doing so; the surface similarities are readily apparent: scratchy, lo-fi tendencies, surf-side guitars, bass and double-time drums, the backward nod to female pop of the past. Yet Grass Widow defy easy categorization. Past Time, their Kill Rock Stars debut, presents the band as a deft amalgamation of disparate sounds, given to primal prog-rock undertows as often as saccharine three-part harmonies, complex chord progressions as often as blissful string-led psychedelic passages.

Opener “Uncertain Memory” wastes no time declaring the band’s intentions. Creeping in like the seedier aspects of British invasion pop, the song erupts with each member contributing vocals and displaying mastery of their given instrument. Bassist Hannah Lew’s lines are hyperactive, surging, and melodic, the trebly grit of her bass playing off the intertwining lines of Raven Mahon’s and Lillian Maring’s spider-web guitars.

“We want to thrive in our scene as musicians, with a focus on our musicianship first, not our gender. Our goal is to normalize the role of gender in our craft and have an avenue to express our intelligence and our love of music,” the band states. As someone who spent all yesterday listening to the second best Teen(age) Dream record to come out this year, I feel completely out of my league dissecting the role of women in popular and independent music, but what’s clear is that the women of Grass Widow have done their thinking on the subject, acknowledging the past contributions of women in independent/punk circles while disregarding most of the implied rock ’n’ roll posturing, aiming to be portrayed “as the responsible, thoughtful people that we are.”

The rest of the album is devoted to reappropriating the Zappa maxim “Shut Up ’n’ Play Yer Guitar.” “Shadow” opens with “Wipeout” drums and chiming post-punk guitars, before giving way to the blended vocals. The band’s reported Kinks affection is on show here, while the call-and-response bridge recalls everything bad-ass suggested by the Kill Rock Stars banner. “Old Disguise” plays spy-movie themes and exhibits some tense theatrics while providing the record’s prettiest moment, with the band singing, “Choose to write the story/ Sitting in our room” — or at least that’s what I think they’re singing; the vocals here aren’t very clear, perhaps fitting into the dynamic suggested by the band’s name: inscrutable, with nothing exactly what it appears to be.

Single “Fried Egg” crashes on a violent wave and is another example of the tangled sound that unites the album, with vocals piling on each other, each line suggesting a new context for the song. “Submarine” adds organ and more of those strident post-punk guitars to the mix, with washes of diminished chords and the slyly political lyric “All is manufactured.” The record closes with the bass-heavy “Tuesday,” which offers the record’s quickest, most direct moment, and while the band suggests that it wants to move beyond the “riot grrrl tag,” “Tuesday” is an undeniable reminder of why that style mattered as much as it did.

It’s this synthesis of past lessons and current enthusiasm that enables Past Time to succeed the way it does. It’s not the flashiest indie-pop record of the year; there are no talking cats or boyfriend-talk, no famous girl-group producers, and no prevailing sense of irony. To be clear, I love Best Coast and Dum Dum Girls, but I’m struck by Past Time because it demands attention more than context, and its hooks sink deeper with each listen. Early Grass Widow gems like the haunting “Lulu’s Lips” suggested a band that was really going to deliver one day. Past Time confirms those suspicions with firm resolve.

Links: Grass Widow - Kill Rock Stars

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