Peanut Butter. The much loved but much debated spread. We’ve all been backed into a corner by that question: Crunchy or smooth? And what a fiery question it is. There aren’t many other things in this world that’s as divisive as the answer you give to that question. Be wary of who you divulge your preference to. It might be wise to make sure they’re in the same camp. Welsh five-piece Joanna Gruesome could probably care less what you’d think of their preference. Anyway, judging by their two-pronged sound of scuzzy punk rock – the crunch to their sound – and sweet melodic pop – the smooth to their sound – they’re fans of both, and wouldn’t think twice about “crushing your tiny skull” (“Last Year“) if you contested their favoured choice on a particular morning.
In just 22 minutes, the band put on a masterclass in coupling crunch with smoothness on their newly-released second album Peanut Butter, flipping between the two effortlessly, punctuating that sound with moments of discordancy that jut out and kick you in the shins. Frontwoman Alanna McArdle takes the same approach with her vocals, one minute an in-your-face and fierce animal, shouting threats like “stay if you like, but I’ll make a scene” in pummelling opener “Last Year”, and the next turning into the dreamiest of girls, as she does in “Jamie (Luvver)“, her dainty vocals drifting atop a tuneful distortion declaring “I’ve got to tell you truly, I like you“.
The music is infectiously catchy, and has a snarl and punch to it, but it’s McArdle who’s the true weapon. She’s a livewire who makes her voice heard and commands attention, and who embodies the essence of the riot grrrl movement, one started in the early ‘90s by strong women with ferocious attitudes that fought for their respect in an industry that still to this day isn’t as accepting of them as it should be. Women like McArdle are needed in music; to continue the dismantling of the notion that they can’t exist on the same level as men in an industry dominated by the latter.
But then there’s McArdle’s preoccupation with soured relationships and unrequited love, a curious one from someone who seems so mightily independent and thick-skinned. You’d think she wouldn’t feel those aches of the heart that we’ve all felt, or that she wouldn’t get herself into those situations in the first place, but she’s human after all, and love finds a way to “bite through every part” (“Honestly Do Yr Worst“). She fears “nothing will ever be okay again” in “Jerome (Liar)“, and feels used in “I Don’t Wanna Relax“: “you only say you want me when you’re tired in your room“.
In their cover of Black Terror’s “Separate Bedrooms“, over jangling driving guitars, McArdle and guitarist Owen Williams sing “I know trying to make you fall in love is something I should not do”, already resigned to the fact that things won’t end well, and later realizing that “life would be all right if I hadn’t met you, we could spend every single night in separate bedrooms”. It’s just so much simpler when you’re not sharing a bed, something McArdle’s evidently learned through quite a bit of pain. It all leaves her totally exasperated and deflated, ultimately asking, “what the hell am I supposed to do?” in “Crayon”, one of the gentler moments of the album.
The opposites of it all. In the melodic crunch of the band’s noisepop sound. In the strong-willed yet lovelorn Alanna McArdle. The beauty in the discordancy, and the fragility hidden in amongst the mettle, and the riveting current of dishevelled raw energy underneath it all. It all makes for an absorbing experience on Peanut Butter and it’s what sets Joanna Gruesome apart from their peers. Sure, the album only clocks in at a brief 22 minutes, but in those 22 minutes Joanna Gruesome hit you hard and fast, with moments of warmth, and moments of anguish, and they will send your heart aflutter, and stomp all over it. It’s the game of love after all. Peanut Butter is out now on Slumberland Records, purchase it here.
Words by Oli Kuscher