These aren't good times for communitarian ideals, either in politics — with our sclerotic, shout-louder-than-the-next-asshole punditocracy — or in music, where the landscape is dominated by the indulgences of solo artists. In 2012, the individual is king: Prevailing ideals favor the flawed heroism of artiste-godhead types (Kanye, Gaga, Beyoncé, et al.) over bands, groups, or other power-sharing configurations. Jagger may still be strutting his stuff, but only while backed up by lesser names, far from where a Keith Richards or Charlie Watts could threaten his spotlight. The slight return of rap posses like Black Hippy and boy bands like One Direction are temporary exceptions (the good ones all go solo eventually) that prove the rule.
Yet in music as in politics, a band of equals offers a much-needed antidote to the cult of one intense personality. There's no better example of this than San Francisco trio Grass Widow, whose soaring, gravity-defying songs testify to the value of communal participation — and to the enduring vitality of post-punk.
All three women in Grass Widow sing, twisting their voices around each other in silky harmonies and counterpoints that feel wild and impressionistic. As guitarist Raven Mahon explains, "A new voice is born out of our voices together, and it just wouldn't be same without one of us." These patterns are gorgeous to the ear, but extracting lyrics from them takes concentration. In some songs, one finds only a few words repeated with slight changes in emphasis, suggesting an interpretation rather than insisting on it.
This weaving of individual voices also plays out instrumentally. On the band's excellent (and aptly titled) new album, Internal Logic, Mahon and bassist Hannah Lew venture out over quick tempos to solo in odd tonalities, then come back together for a section of driving emphasis. The songs — never longer than three-and-a-half minutes, and usually much shorter — follow unpredictable structures and often end without tonal resolution, like a postmillennial punk that borrows a little from free jazz. The band's instrumental palette is subdued: Lew's brown-hued bass sounds straight off an early Misfits record, Mahon's guitar growls through its shimmer; and Lillian Maring uses her dry-sounding drum kit with economy that would make the Minutemen proud. The mix of instruments seems perfectly designed to accompany the trio's vocals, and vice versa. Nothing overpowers, and the result is thrilling in its nuance and unpredictability.
The ideal of equal collaboration enters into every aspect of how the band works. Everyone writes, sings, and has the same say in what happens in Grass Widow. "It's a musical tendency, but it's also a political tendency, where there's an emphasis away from the idea of some 'it girl' ... and there's more of an emphasis on participation and multiplicity," Lew explains. (Even while being interviewed for this story, the ladies of Grass Widow put the phone on speaker and trade off answering questions.) When the band rehearses — inside a former meat locker near 16th and Mission — it records itself and tweaks each new song until everyone is happy.
Ideals, though, come at a price: Because of its members' preference for all-ages shows and their insistence on fairly paying all bands on a bill (a reaction to the radically different rates often earned by headliners and openers), Grass Widow isn't self-supporting, even with its national fan base. The band won't license its music to just anybody, thus cutting off a stream of income that keeps many peers afloat. "We would probably make a lot more money if we didn't care about those things," says Lew. "But I think those kinds of dynamics make people feel less respected, and we want to play shows where everyone's stoked."
The members of Grass Widow also put out Internal Logic on their own label, rather than through an indie like Kill Rock Stars, which released the band's last album, Past Time. Made just after all three members suffered personal tragedies, including the death of Lew's father, Past Time is dark and distraught. Written and recorded in happier times, Internal Logic feels more spacious and confident. Its punkish sprints are interrupted by an airy solo classical guitar piece (Mahon's "A Light in the Static"), and it ends with a short, sublime piano work, titled "Response to Photograph." Even the cover art, a large image of the moon, suggests a hopeful serenity. "We set out with the goal to write songs that we would want to hear ourselves play every night," Maring says. "We opened ourselves up to new possibilities."
In doing so, Grass Widow also managed to inject a new vitality into that beloved but stale world of "post-punk." While so many bands sound like cool-minded curations of the indie canon, Grass Widow combines the elements of punk with its own innovations. Aside from some indebtedness to the rawness of riot grrrl — a comparison that Lew likes, but says "needs to be redefined for a modern context" — the band might owe more to its forebears politically than musically. Equality, participation, and doing-it-yourself are (again) the declarations of independence here. What has changed are the times: For all their feminist intensity, Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill never faced an era as hostile to egalitarianism and collective empowerment as the one we're living in now. Grass Widow, then, is doing more than just making exciting music. These three voices are fighting for an aesthetic and political ideal, against a world headed in the other direction.