Despite the low fidelity of these songs, and the fact that Grass Widow is a trio of women, it'd be awfully reductive, and not to mention dismissive, to lump them in with the likes of Vivian Girls as part of a movement. For one thing, Grass Widow is much more concerned with precision -- with riffs, with clear melodies, with moving parts in their songs -- than with being some sneering step-daughter of Phil Spector. Past Time is a distinct document from a unified band. There doesn't seem to be anyone at the front of the band. Every player sings on the record, and the three often sing together in pretty solid harmony.
But that cohesive feel doesn't stop there. Hannah Lew's bass lines and Raven Mehon's guitar riffs seem to be constantly tangling with each other. You can hear each distinctly, as when Mehon's stringy riffs pull across "Shadow," while Lew's steady notes anchor them down. But the two are capable of both riding side by side and and spinning and fall around each other, and the way they move back and forth is what keeps these songs going.
At their best, the trio is a lean but powerful rock band. Songs like "Uncertain Memory" and "Give Me Shapes" churn with energy, but are also played just off time here and there, the shifts between parts intentionally clunky, so that we can never quite settle into the record. This inability to settle is a good thing, though, since we get some surprising elements here, particularly early on. At times, the stringy guitar lines straighten out into catchy, surf-rock riffs, and in other places violins waft up through all the terse rocking and give their sound a darker heft.
"Fried Egg" might be the most fully realized song of the bunch. All those riffs build on each other here thickening into foggy atmosphere while the girls ditch their often reserved vocals, just bleating it out together as the song builds. It's the high point of the record, and it should be where they hit their stride. But the second half of the record doesn't have the same surprising flourishes as the first half, and those riffs -- so distinct and striking early on -- start to sound the same, and the vocal harmonies that bounced off each other so well for half the album start to hit the same notes, so later songs like "Landscape" and "Submarine" sound okay, but lose a bit of their shine following stronger tracks from the album's first half.
But make no mistake, Grass Widow is the kind of band that could be around a while. They've got the hooks, they've got the personality, and (at their best) they've got the songs. Their low fidelity is a choice for the album, not a way to plug into a movement. And while Past Time might not realize their sound as well as it could, when its working this is a sound that has no expiration date.
San Francisco three-piece Grass Widow is certainly productive. Past Time may feel like their debut, as it’s their first record since signing to major-indie Kill Rock Stars, but it’s actually their fifth recorded product in a little less than three years. The band has two full-lengths, an EP, and a split EP under its belt already. This record does, however, mark the band as one of the few of their brethren to claw their way out of the lo-fi ghetto and try something like a major-label release, leaving behind split-cassette EPs for opening slots for Sonic Youth. And, one would guess, enough cash to quit working at Anthropologie.