(Kill Rock Stars)
Dating back to the 1500s, the out-of-use term "grass widow" primarily referred to a woman whose spouse or lover was alive but absent—out to sea, off to war. There are no male players in the San Francisco band of that name, and their stellar second album, Past Time, sure isn't longing for any. The three women who make up the band are close-knit, nearing the point of hive mind, all singing on every track, all contributing lyrics, purpose, and above all, melody. And what odd, lovely melodies they are. The band professes love for the multi-part, honey-soaked harmonics of British Invasion bands like the Kinks or the Move. While that intent is easy enough to identify, in practice, the stark, non-linear phrases of their songs and the way in which their voices overlap, interrupt and combine, can't help but recall first-wave post-punk's glorious influx of imperfect female singers. When the strident riffs of "11 of Diamonds" clear, the quizzical, coiling vocal-line first heard has the alien grace of Young Marble Giants' Alison Statton. Or it does until voices rush in from all sides, subtly distinct in isolation, but seamless in unison. The effect is slightly different, though. Where those late 70s bands projected reckless spontaneity, Grass Widow exudes cool control.
Perhaps the band even knows a little too well what they want to do. The main knock on the record is that on listen one, or listen 12, really, the songs can seem too uniform in approach, almost always cradling their surf-y rumblings with the aforementioned vocal cushion. But the dynamism of the record isn't measured in the progression from song to song; it's contained consistently within the slight run-times of them all. It's evident as "Uncertain Memory" shifts from brash to spooky with the introduction of lush, ominous strings and as "Fried Egg" repeatedly seesaws from rave-up to lullaby and back. The measured craft here clears the low bar of recent lo-fi. Yes, it's definitely much better than the Vivian Girls, using a formula that's not miles away from theirs, but it's also deeper than the Soft Pack, the Crocodiles, or whatever backwards-looking fuzz band you want to name. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Past Time is that it is distinctly feminine rock music absent the now-ubiquitous influence of 60s pop-radio's retrograde pining. Here's a group of women, making sophisticated, compelling music, with no desire to be a girl-group, at all.