Having a punny band name is a tricky business—it’s roughly equivalent to running around in a library screaming, “Look at me!” This can get toiling indie bands the attention they want fairly quickly, but that’s a double-edged sword: If all bands’ debuts were hyped enough to warrant intense criticism, we’d be short quite a few bands. Joanna Gruesome, by cheekily naming itself after acclaimed singer and harpist Joanna Newsom, provoked an immediate reaction (either laughing or cringing) that was bound to get attention. Luckily, the Welsh five-piece was musically mature enough to weather the media onslaught—its 2013 debut on Slumberland/Fortuna Pop! Records, Weird Sister, won the 2014 Welsh Music Prize, beating off Welsh music scene stalwarts Gruff Rhys and Manic Street Preachers in the process.
Peanut Butter, the band’s sophomore effort, is even better than Weird Sister. It keeps the same elements of its debut: major, twee-style guitar chords with a few dissonant ones thrown in every once in a while to keep the listener off guard; liberal application of feedback; punk tempos; and a high-pitched lead vocal that alternates between sweet crooning and screaming. More importantly, Peanut Butter is only 21 minutes long—other bands have L.P.s longer than that—and it’s hyper-focused.
The art of the short song is underappreciated: Frontwoman and lyricist Alanna McArdle is able to say everything she wants to say (not that it’s super distinguishable) in songs that are mostly around the two-minute mark. And Joanna Gruesome isn’t distracted by the dangling fruits of cool studio effects—distortion and feedback take it as far as it wants to go. The songs on Peanut Butter are slim, catchy, and focused. In fact, the record as a whole is exciting. It’s impossible to predict when guitarists Owen Williams and George Nicholls will decide to throw down a weird chord or when McArdle will start yelling.
For example, the lead track, “Last Year,” starts off with a twinge of feedback and rolls into a classic hardcore drum pattern before McArdle hurdles into the fray with Meredith Graves–esque vocals (Graves’s band, Perfect Pussy, and Joanna Gruesome did a split 7” single in 2014, so the comparison isn’t too far-fetched). All of a sudden, the chorus hits, and everything smooths out—McArdle starts singing in a high, delicate voice, and it’s hard to remember that she was hollering passionately into the mic just a few seconds before. The closer “Hey! I Wanna Be Yr Best Friend” is a far cry from “Last Year,” featuring an insistent but gentle bassline, no drums, and ending with a lone guitar going up a scale. “Separate Bedrooms,” a cover of an underground DIY band from Bristol called Black Terror, sits perfectly on Peanut Butter—sweetly aggressive with poignant lyrics. (“I know that life would be alright if I hadn’t met you./ We could spend every single night in separate bedrooms.”) Joanna Gruesome’s ’80s influences are clear: It’s got a hardcore punk style to which the members contrarily add melody (a happy mash-up of Beat Happening and Black Flag), and a DIY ethic that would make The Minutemen smile (they self-released their first E.P. and covered a DIY band on Peanut Butter, which by virtue of its running time is an homage to jamming econo).
But Joanna Gruesome is still a modern band, with song titles so out of context they’re funny (“There Is No Function Stacy,” “Anti-Parent Cowboy Killers”), and a female vocalist who does music journalism in her free time (McArdle’s writing has been featured in The Talkhouse and Noisey).
And so, two albums in, it’s hard to imagine a band embodying its name so perfectly: Joanna Gruesome takes Joanna Newsom’s intellectual indie pop plus a twist, making music that’s, as Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn once put it, “Y’know, heavy.”