Third Sex Get Down To Details On Back To Go

Band's second album pairs narrative sensibility with clean punk sound.

Peyton Marshall has washed her hands of the washing business. For three years, the singer, bassist and guitarist for punk rockers the Third Sex ground down her knees scrubbing grout, wrung out her wrists creasing others' linens and swabbed floors until her shoulders melted into the mop handle.

But it was the emotional intrusion of the job, rather than the physical exertion, that finally wore her out.

"It breaks down the personal barriers," Marshall, 27, said recently from her home in Portland, Ore. "[Your employer] wants your attention as a friend. They think it's OK to just reach over and touch you. They think they can call you in the middle of the night and go, 'Can you come over?' "

Marshall recounts her days behind the bucket as a cleaner in "More Than Your Friends" (RealAudio excerpt), from the Third Sex's second disc, Back to Go, released quietly last year on the independent Chainsaw label.

"Is that you looking over my shoulder tonight/ As I break my back to get these tiles really white?" Marshall sings over her bandmates' clean and punchy backing. "I know more than your friends/ I've held your secrets in my hands/ Don't trust me here alone inside your home."

The song's details reflect a narrative sensibility that escapes many of Third Sex's punk peers — a lyrical maturity that can only be helped by Marshall's degree in English, from Reed College, and songwriting partner and guitarist/singer/bassist Trish Walsh's English degree from Portland State University. (Walsh is currently enrolled in the University of Iowa's creative writing program.)

"They're not the kind of band that just sat in the studio and said, 'We're gonna write our lyrics now,' " said Donna Dresch, the onetime Team Dresch bassist who produced Back to Go. "They stress about it; they have to meet and discuss it. They plan more than anybody I've ever seen."

With both Marshall and Walsh open about their homosexuality, they and new drummer Shari (who goes by her first name only) make Third Sex spiritual cousins to such queer-positive bands as Bikini Kill and the Butchies. Musically, however, they're more akin to riot-grrrl inheritors like the Bangs, sanding down rough edges and experimentation to a charged, melodic finish on such songs as "Maul 10.09.97" (RealAudio excerpt).

Not long after Marshall moved to Portland from Virginia, in the early '90s, she saw a Bikini Kill show that sparked the notion that she, too, could start a band. She and Walsh teamed up, recorded a 7-inch and compilation track, then released their debut album, Card Carryin', in 1996. They used the break between releases to finish up undergraduate studies.

"I was very sheltered growing up," Marshall said. "I had never really seen women performers. I had my Joni Mitchell record — that might have been it. I didn't realize how foreign it was to me until I actually moved and started going to different shows."

Now she and Walsh are not only performing, but they're also tackling topics that can be difficult even for seasoned players. On the co-written "Wonderful Life," (RealAudio excerpt) they describe being home for the holidays, amid families who are less than accepting of their openly gay children.

"You go home and feel like you have to keep a whole side of yourself hidden from your family," Marshall said. "Every family has its rituals and the things it falls back on to function. You embrace that, but you can also feel the chafe of that. The ritual holds you together, but you never really address the truth."