by Chad Jewett
Peanut Butter, the new album from Welsh quintet Joanna Gruesome, is a guitar pop record with post-hardcore’s density. Songs like “Honestly Do Yr Worst” and “Crayon” seem to layer the tuneful warmth of Teenage Fanclub or The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart over the nervy bends of late-80s Dischord Records, and whenever Peanut Butter finds that balance, the results are enthralling. At its best, the LP delivers a spirited, major-key brightness that lands with an unanticipated wallop; even at its most airy, there’s a central force to Peanut Butter that is as wild as it is winning (the band’s label, Slumberland Records — whose catalogue is similarly split between bookish bedroom pop and nervy post-punk — is a perfect fit in this sense). Like its titular confection, the album is both sugary and savory and sticks to the roof of your mouth.
You can find all of this subtle balancing – early SST basement punk leavened with buoyant C86 melody – on the just-about-perfect “Last Year”, the record’s opening song and its most convincing thesis statement. Beginning with the prickly public-serve-announcement bluntness of Minor Threat before eventually blossoming into a pairing of crystalline hooks and major chords that nevertheless keeps that hardcore weight, the song is an absolute wonder, making all of that alchemy of pop and angular thump seem effortless and natural. You listen to “Last Year” and you wonder why a hundred bands aren’t doing this, why no one else seems to have heard what Joanna Gruesome hears – which is how the youthful, mostly-sunny vivacity of indie-pop shares a whole lot with VFW all-ages punk. The song models the used-sedan floor of a thousand punk kids with imagination, where cassettes of End on End and burned copies of The Execution Of All Things get mixed up.
“Last Year” is such a galvanizing and intoxicating three minutes that you want to hear Joanna Gruesome try the same maneuver again and again. But Peanut Butter is more interested in layering their different tastes for DIY guitar noise than brusquely fusing them together. Thus, for instance, “Jaime (Luvver)” and “Jerome (Liar)” –bookends, judging by their titles – both begin with quick atonal pulses before leveling into K Records-esque indie. But on the margins, between hooks, there are sudden, piquant bursts, like the thrashing post-choruses of “Jerome” or the squalling, galloping bridge of “Jaime”. The stylistic gracenotes are mutually beneficial, lending added sweetness to the band’s routinely excellent choruses while at the same time giving extra bite to Joanna Gruesome’s more serrated moments.
Elsewhere, “Honestly Do Yr Worst” (one of the album’s absolute highlights) reverses the algebra of “Last Year” and the brash garage-rock-meets-twee of “Psykick Espionage”, following up a verse of Boy With The Arab Strap breeziness with sharp hardcore, then alighting back into its initial lightness. There’s plenty of subtext here, not the least of which being that a lovely melody can have its own force, that the sheer mass of brawny punk rock isn’t the only way to captivate — especially when led by an instrument as flexible as the voice of Alanna McArdle, who can variably cut in a barbed shout or chirp like an especially radiant woodwind.
Peanut Butter only thins when it settles for one swath of its many-splendored aesthetic. “Separate Bedrooms” offers a nice centering harmony but otherwise feels threadbare, comfy but not much else. Similarly, “There Is No Function Stacy” is one of the album’s shortest songs but ends up feeling like one of its longest, if only because its middle pace translates as somehow neutral, sepia-toned to the point of feeling washed out. Better is the unexpected splintered minimalism of album-closer “Hey! I Wanna Be Yr Best Friend”, a spartan stretch of bedroom-pop that hews dark, floating atop a faux mellotron and a spidery guitar that occasionally teeters into atonality before the song reaches a brief but poignant final swell. It’s 120 seconds of hungry imagination and basement-punk sonic bravery, and an apt finale to an album defined by both.