Musician and recording engineer Steve Albini once wrote, “The male-female relationship, as a subject for song, is thoroughly bankrupt,” and indeed it’s hard to defend the dire state of popular-song lyric writing today. So, it’s refreshing to encounter a band that actually strives to distinguish itself by being a bit on the oblique side and not going into well-trod lyrical territory, such as the San Francisco trio Grass Widow. Its name, which is a term for an abandoned wife, also represents something that is not in plain sight, and the title of the group’s latest album, Internal Logic, refers to a line of reasoning that makes sense to one person but does not to any outsiders. Fans of Grass Widow’s previous efforts will likely enjoy Internal Logic also, although it’s a tad more difficult to decrypt, with a sonic mix that does not always clearly distinguish the lyrics. As before, the outfit employs a perky, tight, upbeat pop style that seems to draw from ’90s influences and a little bit of late-’70s post-punk attitudes.
Grass Widow has an economy of sound, with hardly a wasted note, and guitarist Raven Mahon tends to pluck single notes, rather than going strum-happy, to mark her path. However, on tracks like “Under the Atmosphere” and “Milo Minute,” Mahon meanders in an ear-catching way for non-modal jaunts that defy expectations. Bassist Hannah Lew carries a similar energy but with more structured note patterns, and drummer Lillian Maring completes the sound-mesh with insistent, spirited beats, clearly coming from a self-taught performing background. All three women are singers, and perhaps the most immediately charming aspect of the group is the choirgirl-esque harmonizing.
In enigmatic form, Internal Logic has musical punctuation, beginning with out-of-context electronics, ending with the solo piano piece “Response to Photographers,” and featuring a nylon-stringed solo guitar piece right in the center; it might not make sense, but that’s not necessary.
The Money Store
Listening to the Death Grips major-label debut and follow-up to its piercing Exmilitary mixtape, I can’t help but think of the film Apocalypse Now and its theme of fighting one atrocity with another. The Money Store is a non-stop barrage of hip-hop terror and visceral barb-spitting, as if constantly trying to defeat demons by taking the game to the next level. The proceedings go beyond mere posturing into the realm of sadism, on tracks such as the bombastic “System Blower” and “The Cage” with its sick synths and bent siren wailing.
The voice of Death Grips is MC Ride (a.k.a. Stefan Burnett), who rolls off dozens of quick hits, staccato phrases, and lyrical shrapnel, and all but the most attentive listeners won’t likely be able to keep up. One can hear a trace of Jamaican toasting in his style, enhanced by dub-esque echoing and studio-produced stuttering repetition. Rounding out the trio are the production team of Zach Hill, best known as the super-charged drummer for Hella and Marnie Stern, and Flatlander (a.k.a. Andy Morin), who complement MC Ride with a manic rush of distorted samples, loops, and uneasy drones. Hill fans should note that in the studio, Death Grips mostly relies on drum machines for its beats, which stray away from funk-based syncopation and use more basic, straight-line patterns, to sound less playful and more urgent and demanding.
The dizzying “Hacker” is a jumble of technical violations, amid international settings and a bed of commercialism, and delving even further into the theme of paranoia is the troubling “I’ve Seen Footage,” about watching and re-watching videos of people getting killed, staying on edge yet being desensitized. The Money Store is dark, compelling, and contagious and might be a shock for those unprepared for its abrasive psychological onslaught. How do you come to grips with it? Play it again.