[18 July 2012]
It may be difficult or rare to be an all-woman band (more typically called in familiar sexist fashion, “all-girl,” or “all-chick”). But the sexual politics of rock n’ roll have typically generated much spurious and uninteresting commentary. Grass Widow enacts its own empowerment — if we can intellectualize a little — by playing with the expected “prettiness” of the female voice and matching it with a rhythmically unrelenting, jerking and piercing sound: luring in listeners with its beauty and then wrapping them up tightly in a straitjacket. What is pessimistically expected is there — the maligned sounds of “girl music” — but it is undone to invoke a different power.
The band’s name refers to an abandoned woman, a mistress, a divorcée, mother of an illegitimate child, or a temporarily single woman. One might expect fury from a woman spurned, but that misogynistic expectation is only a hopeful means of control. The grass widow, who is denied the dignity of being an actual widow, is suspicious because of the power of being alone. And Grass Widow restrain themselves, letting their power seethe. Yet the band also embodies a principle of equality. Grass Widow is a trio with equal contributions from each member, and the band is committed to playing shows accessible to younger audiences and not overwhelmingly male-dominated. And though their sound can be haunting, Grass Widow do have a sense of humor (showing up on a Portlandia sketch, for example)—they’ve even played for gorillas in the zoo (see the “Milo Minute” video).
One might be tempted to compare Grass Widow to The Raincoats, their female punk predecessors who expertly clashed melody and noise. And that comparison works in terms of the lushness and commitment evident in Grass Widow. The band’s sound breaks down to two elements: pretty, folky harmonies and jerky, trebly post-punk instrumentation. The bass especially recalls the classic punk era, played in the upper register, hitting every beat. But with Internal Logic, the band’s third, self-released album (HLR Records stands for Hannah, bass; Lillian, drums; Raven, guitar), the worldview that attends this music has become less playful, less fun, scarier, crueler. Everything on this album is tightly wound, to the point of claustrophobia.
Grass Widow’s lyrics are often unintelligible, blurred into pure sound by the weight of the harmonies and the strange phrasing of the words. The words are emotional yet abstract, telling hallucinatory stories. “Milo Minute” begins, “Stepping up to ride / Without invitation / Lean into the pathway / Anything that I believed in / Offered me a ride”. These lyrics conjure an image only to dissolve it into immateriality. With its swinging surf riff, it is one of the album highlights, perhaps also because of the strange, low, spoken vocal part of the verse. Similarly surfy, “Spock on MUNI” comes crashing in to shake up the more contained sonic structure of the album, before washing back into the familiar, steady rhythm. The chorus, “In your head”, followed by some deadpan “la la las” gets to the slow burning insanity this album evokes. “Cover You” is a peak of the counterintuitive melodic lines, where each pair of notes seems to simulate a siren. The surf beat and the walking bass twine like ivy and the guitar stays more fluid than elsewhere.
Internal Logic is a complete picture. The band plays better, tighter, than on its previous albums — there’s no room to spare. The production is more uniform, making the sound meatier, even though the music itself is all in upper registers. With no song longer than three-and-a-half minutes, and many that are shorter than three minutes, there is an overall relentlessness to the album. The uniformity is only broken twice: the mid-album classical guitar track, appropriately titled “A Light in the Static”, and the almost cheesy piano closer, “Response to Photographers”, whose title suggests that the band is quite conscious of the interruptive moments. The two tracks, light and response, refer to glimpses of an outside to their sound.
The band almost always harmonizes, in a group mind, never letting up. All of the instruments are played as if they are being gripped tightly. Raven Mahon strums her guitar the same way, a swinging four-four beat. The little lead licks are either half-step, snake charming circus melodies or surf style solos. Hannah Lew’s bass follows the guitar loyally, clingingly. Though the harmonies are always beautiful, the drums are really the most exciting element, even though a beat might get lost here and there. Lillian Maring’s fills consistently threaten to escape from the forbidding wall of sound that almost never betrays a crack of weakness.
The internal logic is a killing logic. The cumulative effect of listening to Internal Logic is like hearing a persecutory voice in your head. The clash of pretty and harsh works so perfectly to defuse either of its attractions. The melodies are almost saccharine, but hardly ever stand out. The softness is haunting. Where the funhouse music confines you in a dark room, the clarity of the voices almost suggests a sunny window into the scene of distress. Yet, still, the unrelenting harmonies themselves become constricting. This album, with its winding screw-like grooves, bores in like a migraine. And that’s the only issue with it. Internal Logic is admirable for the fullness of its vision, but ultimately can become overwhelming to listen to as a whole.