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Grass Widow - Past Time

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Artist: Grass Widow

Album: Past Time

Label: Kill Rock Stars

Review date: Aug. 23, 2010

In an interview with Jennifer Egan, Nick Sylvester brought up an old, but naggingly persistent, problem with music criticism: "One of the gripes people can have about music writing is when the writer just lists band names as reference points rather than describing the music itself." Fair point, and timely. An overload of rehash artists and bandwagoneers has made it difficult to differentiate bands both from each other and their historical antecedents without more ubiquitous signposts. Cocktails of prominent influences, ‘relevant’ contemporaries, and heavy use of the suffix “-esque” supplant earnest discussion of sound with a more relatable game of “sounds like.” Now, it’s easy to blame this critical consternation on the laziness of the people making the records, but that’s an unfair stance. As listeners, we are, at best, becoming too lazy to describe what we’re hearing and, at worst, losing the ability to do so without crutches.

Grass Widow, however, provokes a need to describe. And Past Time, its first for Kill Rock Stars, is a singular record that deserves your full attention. Placing them within a historical context isn’t that hard at first blush. But it’s an immensely reductive practice that glosses over the details. Doug Mosurock first called the band an “all-female pop exuberance machine, playing double-time games with a sound template expanded well beyond the daily standard of reverb-drenched, rudimentary pop” in Still Single. That idea of its songs as architecture, building on the foundations and skeletal supports of basic pop structures, has never been more apropos.

Charting the course of small twists and idiosyncrasies that populate Past Time will be unique to each person (each listen, even), but here’s what I gathered from maybe my 20th listen. The end of opener “Uncertain Memory” winds down with the bass — the prominent, thrumming, irregular organ that moves so many songs forward — dissolving into a small, ominous arrangement for a string quartet. The chords move glacially further into minor depths, and somehow carry over so much foreboding into “Shadow.” It’s bumpier, quicker, ostensibly lighter, but Hannah Lew’s bass tone still hews closely to the shadows being described. Raven Mahon also starts to build a more aggressive campaign, with bursts of cathartic guitar violence made for arenas as much as dive bars. The two spend the better part of the middle section of the album engaged in call-and-return that has both pickers weaving in and out of the metronymic traffic control maintained by Lillian Maring’s drumming.

It all seems very precarious sometimes, but the machine is maintained immaculately. That’s what makes the moments of unity so much more forceful: a single bar of syncopation in the middle of “Give Me Shapes” makes an old dance step seem utterly original. And when all three of their normally jousting voices combine for the chorus on “Landscape,” the harmonic alignment provides an expansive comfort that comes with staring at the sky, be it clouds or stars. The dream-state maintains throughout “Submarine,” probably their deepest song and the easiest to get lost in. Grass Widow manages to fit the full range of its talents into a single sub-three minute song with a singular density of experience. It starts in the basement with a droning organ and spirals all the way up to a precariously dissonant bridge before settling back into a pillowy harmony as the organ reappears.

And all of a sudden, it’s over. “Tuesday” builds to a kind of symphonic closing frenzy that closes with a real sense of punctuation. Still, the expectation of one more song being met with silence is something of a shock. Even now, the immersion is distractingly complete enough that the end catches me off-balance.

This kind of detail-heavy album can make you feel like you’re missing something if you’re not paying attention. Each listen can run the risk of feeling incomplete. But by that same token, it also means it can feel new each time. The double meaning behind the album title only came to me now, in trying to figure out how to wrap this thing up. I take it to be: “Past time” is the perfect description for both the act and experience of listening to an album. Particularly this one.

By Evan Hanlon

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