“Peanut butter is what holds us together.” These immortal words spoken by my high school physical education teacher – in response to a student noting that he ate peanut butter and crackers every day at lunch – were the first thing that came to my mind upon hearing Joanna Gruesome’s new album title. The second, after reading the press release’s allusions to “radical politics” as one of Peanut Butter’s themes, was Dr. Seuss’ 1984 book, The Butter Battle Book. While not specifically about peanut butter, it’s a Cold War allegory based around two rival nations on the brink of war over how to butter their bread – on the top or on the bottom.
Peanut Butter is a political album, the politics of what holds us together, the sexual politics of communication and interpersonal relationships. Singer Alanna McArdle is no stranger to exposing the pervasive sexism still present in society today, particularly in the music industry and in gig culture. Right off the bat, on opener and lead single, “Last Year”, McArdle seethes at and threatens her partner, the band barreling behind her with a full of head of steam. Midway through, though, McArdle relents, crying, “I will not! I will not! I will not!” as the song melts into a falsetto duet with guitarist Owen Williams, McArdle’s fevered rant ebbing to a cozy coo. Ain’t that how it is? Lest the girl depict herself as “the crazy bitch”, her frustration remains a solitary endeavor, acquiescing to her partner’s face for the sake of the relationship – a relationship where she, no doubt, feels obligated to uphold and maintain regardless of the depth of her unhappiness.
“Last Year” does a nifty thing – it neatly displays the patented dichotomy of Joanna Gruesome’s sound while also illustrating the schism between male and female gender roles. The band’s 2013 debut, Weird Sister introduced us to their knack for juxtaposing such innocent styles as jangle and indie pop alongside and amongst the harsher elements of noise rock and hardcore. While that album sprouted from re-recordings of tracks previously dispersed across earlier singles and EP, Peanut Butter unsurprisingly acquits itself as a more congruous whole. The band is tighter, more focused, and have honed their sound ever more slightly, tossing in snippets of texture and becoming even leaner – if that even seemed possible with Weird Sister clocking in just under 30 minutes, while Peanut Butter finishes a shade over 20.
McArdle and Williams’ ability to carry a theme across the album staves off any glare its brevity may emit, as they repeatedly tap the vein of relationship confusion and the exasperation of ineffective communication, from “Honestly Do Yr Worst”s sweetly fatigued “I’m running on empty” to “Crayon”s crashing “what the hell am I supposed to do?” Williams mentioned in the album’s press that he and fellow guitarist George Nicholls tossed in some “silly” and “macho” guitar solos to poke fun of masculine cock rock. Ironically, the solos serve as a nice extension of the band’s typical blueprint, with only closer “Hey! I Wanna Be Yr Best Friend”s stately prog arpeggios carrying the tune to its close seeming at all out of place. To play gender bias devil’s advocate, why view a guitar solo as a distinctly male vehicle anyway? I’ve heard plenty of tasty, righteous fretboard action from Haim, Ex Hex, Marnie Stern, and St Vincent, to name several female artists, in the past couple years. So I say, stop worrying and love the solo!
It’s true, some relationships are too far gone for repair; many others, though, could simply use some open, honest communication, a virtue that is regretfully in short supply when we cling to our siloed gender roles. Seuss’ book closes open-endedly, each side standing eyeball to eyeball threatening to drop the first bomb. Relationships can feel like that; if only we’d both stop for a minute and realise how frivolous our grievances with each other are. In fact, next time you’re not seeing eye to eye with your better half, pause, take them by the hand to the dinner table, grab some peanut butter and crackers, and sit and chat. And take note of which side you each slather…