FALL ARTS: Fall is here, and women are ruling the Bay Area rock scene
The cover of Grass Widow's second, newly released album, Past Time (Kill Rock Stars), appears to sidestep the issue, until you look closely and notice Lew, guitarist-vocalist Raven Mahon, and drummer-vocalist Lillian Maring poking their heads out a car window in the background. "We're very blurry, but we could be really hot!" Lew jokes. "We probably are really hot!"
Some consider Grass Widow hot for altogether different reasons: the band is often brought up by other all-female local bands as a favorite, and Past Time stands to find a place beside such influential groups as the Raincoats for its blend of sweetness and dissonance, spare instrumentation and sing-out confidence, and interwoven vocals. In some ways, Grass Widow sounds as if it's starting from scratch in a post-punk universe and going forward from there, violating rockist convention.
Are they, as their name might suggest, mourning an indie rock that might or might not be dead? Well, when Lew, Mahon, and Maring started playing together in 2007 under the moniker Shit Storm ("It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, like the facial tattoo of band names!" says Lew), they probably couldn't predict how sadly apropos Grass Widow — a centuries-old phrase referring to a woman whose husband is away at sea or war or on duty — would become. Last year, among other events, Lew's father, noted SF Rabbi Alan Lew, passed away. "We took a six-month break during this intense grieving period, and it was strange to come out of it and think, we're in a band called Grass Widow," Lew says now. "And we were grass widows to each other! Then playing again, it felt right to be in a band like that — it took on this other meaning."
In a similar way, the group regularly works together to transform their experiences, thoughts, and dreams through allegory into song lyrics — and for its release party, it plans to incorporate a string section and a 35-lady choir. "We're not a girl group mourning the loss of our boyfriends and waiting for them to return," muses Mahon. "It's more like we're working together to create and we're functioning just fine that way."
BRIGHT STARS: BRILLIANT COLORS
"We're associated with a lot of bands that came along a few years later, but when I started writing songs three or four years ago, it was a wasteland," says Jess Scott, Brilliant Colors' vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter. "It was really hard to find people who wanted to play pop, not hardcore. It seems like a given now, but it was hard to find people who were into Aislers Set."
Scott's tenacity and focus comes through — loud, clear, and as vivid as the brightest hues in your paint set, and the most resonant melodies of Aislers Set — on Brilliant Colors' 2009 debut, Introducing (Slumberland). Her breathy vocals and rhythm guitar — a crisp combination of post-punk spunk and drone — bound off drummer Diane Anastacio's frisky, skipping beats and bassist Michelle Hill's simple, straight-to-the-gut bass lines like the most natural thing in the world, recalling punk classics by early Buzzcocks and Wire as well as later successors Delta 5 and LiliPUT and riot grrrl-era kin Heavens to Betsy and Huggy Bear.
Scott has been writing songs since she was 15, which, full disclosure, was around the time I first met her, the daughter of two moms, one of whom I worked with. At the time, her sound was softer, more melodic, and at times weirder than the punk outfits that frequented 924 Gilman Street Project, her pals' preferred hangout. Nevertheless, Brilliant Colors has gone on to somehow fuse Gilman's political-punk commitment with Scott's obsession with perfecting pop songcraft.