Melody is not a requirement of punk rock, but it’s often the element that separates the adequate from the great. Few could write a tune like Pete Shelley or Joe Strummer. And fewer still could mutilate it in such a mesmerizing way as The Raincoats or Gang of Four. I suppose at this point we’re getting into post-punk, but the idea is the same. Few things sound quite so sublime as a snotty and youthful group of guitar-slinging troublemakers given the gift of melodic prowess. The three women in Bay Area trio Grass Widow likewise possess this gift, and uncanny ability to make the most fractured of melodies still sound unexpectedly accessible.
On Kill Rock Stars debut Past Time, bassist Hannah Lew, drummer Lillian Marling and guitarist Raven Mahon twist and reconfigure melodies into strange and twisted snakes and ladders. Lew and Mahon refrain from participating in the traditionally symbiotic relationship between bass and guitar, instead treating them as playful adversaries. They harmonize and encircle one another, creating a strangely alluring game of sonic cat and mouse. Likewise, the trio’s vocal harmonies are sweetly hypnotic, but often disorienting. There’s no frontwoman to the group; all three offer up their own talents, and as such, create a delicately searing vocal strata.
In just 26 minutes, Past Time finds Grass Widow hopping, slinking and wriggling through 10 taut and wiry tracks of post-punk intrigue. The serpentine riffs that open “Uncertain Memory” are initially reminiscent of The Cure’s “Killing An Arab,” but quickly transform into a densely intense goth-punk throwdown, complete with eerie string arrangement. The slightly more straightforward “Shadow” is built on overlapping riffs that frequently seem to be on the verge of collapsing beneath one another. But when the band gets going, their energy is infectious, even kind of catchy. The group’s surf-inspired riffs on “Give Me Shapes” recall vintage B-52′s, and closing raveup “Tuesday” turns up the speed and the volume to finish the album with a fiery explosion of a song.
The individual pieces of Past Time sometimes seem incongruous, but it’s incredibly fun listening to Grass Widow fit them back together in each of these ten songs. Whereas many bands will ultimately allow either hooks or musicianship to win out in the end, Grass Widow play songs like they would a game of Jenga, suspenseful and on edge, but constantly maintaining a structure underneath.