Grass Widow

Past Time

(Kill Rock Stars; 2010)

By Lindsay Zoladz | 20 August 2010

Grass Widow, in the press release that plucks them from relative obscurity and introduces them to the indie-majors, heave a knowing sigh. They seem to squint into their immediate future and see a never-ending chain of Ari Up references and Kathleen Hanna references, see every imaginable arrangement of the words “Kleenex” and “Lilliput,” see he reviewers cracking their knuckles before zestfully thumbing through the Rolodex that lists every good female-fronted post-punk band from 1978 to 1988 (guilty as charged) along with corollary “post-girl-punk” or “neo-riot-grrrl” or some other vague, gendered, exhaustingly prefixed franken-adjective. They seem to foresee the unavoidable truth that, because they are three ladies making punk music, they will be talked about in terms of an existing narrative that contains all ladies who make and have made punk music before them. They seem to laugh at that a little bit too: their name is an old term for a woman whose husband was away at sea (also perhaps a sly barb at those who see them exclusively as a “girl band”). But above all things, they sigh. “The riot grrl movement is kind of antiquated,” they say with impromptu profundity in the press release. “We owe a great deal to that lineage, but it’s time for something new.”

The last bit of that quote reads like a call to arms, so one might expect the opening of their superb Kill Rock Stars debut to announce itself in the spirit of, say, the primal, mountain-stomp that opens Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl.” But it doesn’t. In fact, none of the songs on Past Time do. Because when you get right down to it, Grass Widow don’t sound much like a riot grrrl band. Sure, the jalopy bounce of their guitars do resemble Bratmobile a little, or at times even proto-riot grrrls Kleenex/Liliput. Or, you know, the Clean. Or Wire. Or Orange Juice. I could go on—don’t make me get that Rolodex out. Because their three-part harmonies also sound like Mod-era Who vocals refracted through a prism. And guitarist Raven Mahon shares with Joey Santiago an affinity for funneling surf rock sensibilities into jaunty punk riffage. So, no, Past Time is not the second coming of Pussy Whipped (1993). And—I say this with sincerest love for both of those records—thank God.

Last year Grass Widow put out a self-titled EP and LP that indicated promise, but Past Time is a game-upper in every sense. It’s tighter, punchier, and even—this one’s new—a little haunting. The San Francisco trio are at once melodic, off-kilter, and just a tiny bit cartoonish: “Shadow” is like a straightforward punk song that’s gotten lost in a hall of mirrors. Guitar riffs and bass lines criss-cross each other and dart off the walls; vocal melodies deviate and briefly collide and then split off again. It is music in a constant state of tumbling, spilling, boinging—animated by a perpetual sense of vibrant motion.
Past Time is also a showcase for Grass Widow’s distinct vocal approach. There’s no frontwoman: Mahon, bassist Hannah Lew, and drummer Lillian Maring all sing lead, often simultaneously. But to call what they create “harmonies” doesn’t quite get it; they all sing disparate parts that fit together to form a fractured whole, suffusing their melodies with an unnerving beauty and their sound with a slightly dizzying sense of plurality. In this way, their songs are luscious and melodious but without easy hooks to grasp onto. Take, for example, one of my favorite songs on the album, “Tuesday.” The three voices join together for the verses, then part ways—two harmonize in a lower register and one in a lilting falsetto. But just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, they all spring into different directions of tuneful chatter. It’s an infectious song that darts away from under your every endeavor to get a handle on its center. My attempts to hum it on the subway have only proven embarrassing.

Grass Widow have channeled a number of distinct influences, tones, and anxieties into an eccentric and strangely cohesive album. Past Time solidifies that there’s nobody else out there right now who sound quite like them. Their uniqueness, though, belies my frustration with how people will still continue to talk about all-female bands, and—even worse—my frustration with the fact that expressing my frustration with how people talk about Grass Widow as a female band is yet another way of defining them as a female band. One wonders what it would take to break such a stifling cycle, but Grass Widow offer a hopeful answer. Past Time beats against the current—not by bowing reverentially to the narrative of “girl punk,” but by complicating it with its individuality.