Graded on a Curve:
Grass Widow,
Internal Logic

Those with an unscratchable itch for stripped-down yet pop-savvy post-punk should give San Francisco’s Grass Widow a try. Their latest record Internal Logic hits upon many of that sub-genre’s best elements, all without being the slightest bit overbearing about the whole endeavor.

Grass Widow has arrived at their third full length in an admirable, tired-and-true manner; via gigs, practice, patience, networking, and diligence. Debuting in ’09 with a self-titled 12-inch on the Captured Tracks label and a self-titled full-length on the Make A Mess imprint, they’d been playing shows from at least two years previous to those releases, as is evidenced by a demo CD-R that’s recently been discussed on the interwebs.

It should never be understated that one of the crucial factors in a band’s formative period is simply not being in a hurry. Far too many groups have let impatience squander their potential as manifested through the booking of studio time after just a few uncommonly smooth practices. And others have been given fatal advice by spurious third parties less interested in quality music than in the potential for profit.

Thankfully Grass Widow comes from a proudly DIY place. One listen to the angular, post-punk derived sound of those first two records and it’s clear that Hannah Lew, Lillian Marling, and Raven Mahon march to the beat of their own drummer. This isn’t to imply the band don’t give off the vibes of precedent; upon first hearing them I heard the shaping influence of the UK’s unbeatable Rough Trade warriors The Raincoats filtered perhaps through some of the righteous ‘90s rocking of Washington DC’s underappreciated Slant 6.

Some of it was a trio thing, and much of it was the immediate feeling that Grass Widow didn’t have any qualms about their femininity. So it was no surprise that the band’s 2010 follow-up LP was on Kill Rock Stars, a label that since their ’91 inception has proven to be one of the strongest outlets for contemporary women musicians. And Past Time was a tangible advance in both songwriting and in execution.

To their credit, Grass Widow don’t make things easy for themselves; while never getting wonkily progged-out, their music undeniably possessed a palpable riffy complexity, and when coupled with the nature of trio rock (where nobody can hide, because everybody’s integral to the music’s success) they made it clear they weren’t just fooling around. Unlike the appealing shambolic aura of The Vivian Girls’ early stuff, Grass Widow’s music oozed like the product of a band that actually got a big kick out of practice.

If those ’09 records still featured an attractive hint of nervousness in the band’s delivery, it was gone by the very impressive Past Time; no sophomore slump for these three. And their new record Internal Logic posits that Grass Widow could easily become one of our best contemporary bands simply by emitting nary a trace of nonsense and getting right down onto tape and getting heard.

If Past Time was a record about growth, then Internal Logic is about boldness. It’s most immediately engaging quality (beyond the sheer strength of songwriting of course), is how they take a form of skeletal post-punk that’s often defined as a reaction against “pop” sensibilities and imbue it with a fully formed production sound that doesn’t detract in the slightest from the record’s heft. This is achieved mainly due to Grass Widow’s decision to not sacrifice instrumental muscularity. In other words, they haven’t forgotten they’re a rock band.

But all three members are strong of voice, and as their discography has progressed it’s been quite a gas to hear them harmonize; it’s this pop aspect of their sound that leads me to think they could come up with something comparable to The Raincoats’ third LP Moving. But Internal Logic is also a third album, and it’s become apparent that Grass Widow, unlike many of their post-punk predecessors (and I’m not referring to The Raincoats with the following) actually really enjoy what they sound like. Instead of bailing on it as they became more instrumentally adept and confident, they’ve instead honed their music’s considerable qualities through superb judgment into something exceptional.

For those already familiar with the band, the two most notable tracks on Internal Logic will be “A Light in the Static,” which is 1:30 of unexpected Spanish guitar, and the album’s solo piano outro “Response To Photographs.” While they do much to broaden Grass Widow’s palate, they also serve as something of a red herring, for the LP’s real strides come from within territory already established; opener “Goldilocks Zone” runs those splendid harmonies through a noticeably Bratmobile-like zone.

But that’s just for starters. “Hang Around” features some gradually grabbing guitar work, and “Under the Atmosphere” is a surprisingly pretty tune that’s antagonized by tough instrumentation. And longer tracks like “Spock on MUNI” and “Whistling in the Dark” provide platforms for every instrument to shine, particularly the bass, which alternates expertly between rhythm and melody, and the drumming, which is precise but never predictable.

The significance of Spanish guitar on Internal Logic can be stretched a bit and compared to the classical guitar included on Minutemen’s masterpiece Double Nickels on the Dime. Some might find this contrast specious, but for every obvious difference there is a similarity; both are trios, both this and Double Nickels are third proper full-lengths, and like those Pedro dudes, Grass Widow are highly influenced by Brit post-punk. Hell, these gals even covered Wire’s “Mannequin” on their “Milo Minute” 7-inch from last year, and that song’s long been a staple of Mike Watt’s set-lists, even getting recorded by Firehose.

But I don’t want to push the issue too much. Unlike Double Nickels on the Dime, Internal Logic isn’t a masterpiece, and it’s somewhat imperfect. But its main problem is ultimately a minor quibble, specifically the brevity of the LP; two years in the making and the album is shy of half an hour, retreading both “Milo Minute and “Disappearing Industries” from singles. Sure, it’s always preferable for a release to leave listeners wanting more instead of wishing they’d gotten less, and a lean, quick record is very securely in Grass Widow’s M.O. However, it would frankly be nice to see them stretch out and away from the expected a bit.

But one of the most pleasant extra-musical aspects of Grass Widow’s recent development is how they have retained a deep sense of that DIY spirit by releasing Internal Logic on their own HLR label. It’s not only reflective of the band’s sense of scale and their preference for artistic control over fleeting notoriety, but it’s also indicative of a recent spike in artists electing to not just remain with indies, but in many cases taking the initiative to actually coordinate the release of their own product, a trend that I can wholeheartedly cheer.

The above comparisons between Grass Widow and The Raincoats were certainly aided by seeing them play with that legendary Brit band in Washington DC last year, and indeed some might complain that the two bands display too few overt similarities to make the connection. I disagree; to these ears it seems clear that Grass Widow fully understand that when drawing upon the template of the truly groundbreaking, the sincerely influential is antithetical to the spoils produced by the rote copyist.

Again, Grass Widow is scaled differently than The Raincoats (or for that matter, Minutemen), being a band whose best qualities grow with time well spent. All their records are worth owning, but Internal Logic is the most fully formed to date, and its running-time posits that more is to come.

Graded on a Curve: A-

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