Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: The Semi-Squandered Promise of Grass Widow

You really thought you were going to make it through the rest of the week without Douglas Martin writing about another band from San Francisco, didn’t you? Sorry. There are two scenes in which...
By    August 18, 2010


You really thought you were going to make it through the rest of the week without Douglas Martin writing about another band from San Francisco, didn’t you? Sorry.

There are two scenes in which Grass Widow exist, though they belong to neither. The trio plays knotty, herky-jerky post-punk in a city heralded for their millennial update of psychedelic garage rock and punk. They recall The Raincoats and The Slits in a climate in thrall to The Crystals and Black Tambourine. Grass Widow coexists peacefully between Thee Oh Sees and Vivian Girls without like either band, which may be their greatest strength.

Last year around this time, on the strength of irresistible single “To Where,” the tandem of Hannah Lew, Raven Mahon, and Lillian Maring, released a self-titled 12” on local label Make a Mess Records which sold out in weeks (an impressive coup for the Douglas Martin record collection). Within those vinyl grooves was something remarkable–a barrage of melody, riffs and vocals all tangled together with no chance of being unraveled by any old pair of unsteady hands. More often than not, lyrics were accompanied by not just alternate melodies, but alternate lyrics entirely, requiring a deep level of concentration for both performer and listener. Propelled by the sugar-rush of the aforementioned “To Where”, bolstered by the stunning climax of “Time Could Bend”, and book-ended by the glorious, train-running-off-the-rails “Out of Body Experience”, the Grass Widow 12” marked the arrival of a gang nonplussed by the simplistic cuteness of their more heralded female peers, a group whose arrangements were as complex as their voices were angelic.

Past Time, Grass Widow’s official debut (courtesy of Kill Rock Stars– you know, the home of most of the greatest female punk bands of the past two decades), starts off with a slow, dark surf riff and eventually dives headlong into the violin-assisted drama that is “Uncertain Memory,” which makes me wonder why more bands haven’t tapped into the Raincoats’ self-titled record (Interesting Conflict-of-Interest Fact: I sampled “Void”, from the very record I‘m referring to, on the beat for 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers banger “Nullified”). Album-highlight “Submarine” opens with a woozy organ drone and then coasts along with all moving parts completely in-sync, from the driving rhythm section to the mid-range tones spilling from Mahon’s guitar, both slowly strummed and quickly riffed.

But merely doing one thing really well is Past Time‘s albatross. Unlike the thrilling buildup and 6/8 time signature of “Time Could Bend”, this record has no real break from the uptempo, surfy post-punk that Grass Widow is adept at, and that makes the record a slog to listen to at times, even with its brief 26-minute running time. By the time you make it to closing track “Tuesday”– the height of that one thing they do really well– the lack of variety in songwriting catches up. Ultimately, it makes it a good record, but a homogenous one. With their DIY roots, if Grass Widow would have turned the ten tracks on their debut LP into five separate singles, it would have been a smart move that would have not only increased their visibility, but also given them time to work on a more varied full-length capable of harnessing their strengths. As it stands, Grass Widow is a merely a good band who has yet to fully capitalize on their promise.

MP3: Grass Widow-“Submarine”

MP3: Grass Widow-“Tuesday”

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