Nary a pun-monikered band scrapes through the first year intact – especially ones that utilise much-loved indie-folk institutions. However, Joanna Gruesome have managed to wade through balkers and carve themselves a precipice from which to cling; now, one grazed knuckle at a time, they’re clambering onto safer, more solid ground. As each month passes, their nom de guerre becomes less a cheap laff, and more just a band name. They’ve transcended pun-dom, and for that alone deserve at least a healthy smidgen of your attention.
It also helps that they’re chucking lo-fi scuzz-pop in our direction. It’s shabby, slack and uber-’90s. You’ve got little specks of punk, riot grrl, pop, rock, ’80s indie, shoegaze and C86 gaffa taped together into a haphazard torrent of noise. It may be patchwork, but the Cardiff five-piece end up with a sound that’s more than the sum of its parts. There’s a sweetness in the grit and grub – like a toddler playing in mud. All the instruments flail in delirium: guitars dissolve into fuzzy noise like aural Berocca, percussion verges on thrash and the duelling male/female vox battles recall Asobi Seksu or The History Of Apple Pie. In terms of general sound, look towards Yuck, PINS or any other grotty, wooze-addled outfits that revel in meandering melodies, high levels of distortion and nostalgia.
For Joanna Gruesome’s debut LP, the quintet have gone all out. A handful of lauded EPs set the bar fairly high to start with anyway, but on their first full-length, Weird Sister, barely a minute goes by without the music descending into feral chaos. It’s gorgeous. They’ve re-recorded prior cuts, and while there’s still a baggy, dishevelled bearded-dude-in-a-duffle-coat feel, it’s a lot more terse at points, with a crispness previously not delved into. The production value is higher, however, none of the rawness has vanished – you’re just able to appreciate harmonies and rhythms and hooks a lot more. They’re probably still having a grand old time, but this album isn’t Joanna Gruesome just dicking around – they’ve barged onto the scene and want to stay.
‘Madison’ brings locale-mates Los Campesinos!’ trademark noise-pop antics into the fray, swaggering around with heavy axes that chug and snort like robotic swine. It’s got pop-punk tendencies, and it’s definitely a chirpy effort with big hooks, but it still veers towards post-metal at times. ‘Secret Surprise’ conveys very similar tones: it’s all big twee-rock guitar riffs, frantic percussion and sugary vocal lines (though there’s a massive wave of ’80s static too). ‘Sugarcrush’ is another sliver that feeds from the sweet/syrupy/noisy/abrasive well. It’s something they do with skill, and rather than being derivative, they build on something that’s iconic for a different band and provide a twist that makes it something similar, but fresh.
‘Satan’ is a rare moment of respite on the disc as wildly affected vocals squirm in tandem with chimes and lone guitar. It’s grunge-y, and far from the usual rough timbre that Joanna Gruesome purvey, it’s also reflective and (mostly) calm. ‘Wussy Void’, whilst thick with rock FX, also bears tranquillity; the pace is lethargic, and the lofty pop threads rise ably above the bog of noise-rock. It’s much more slacker-twanged, and rather than borrowing from the very British Los Campesinos!, it’s considerably more American, nodding to surf-pop and SoCal dropouts.
The record makes a statement. Joanna Gruesome are here to enjoy themselves – that part should be obvious – but they’re also intending to stick around. This isn’t a debut from a band on the transient fringes, it’s one from a sharp act with scores to offer beyond the gimmicks. While there’s a bit of a formula to be spotted, it’s one that works for them – given that it’s new to us, it’s easy to appreciate and doesn’t wear too thin over Weird Sister‘s duration. Perhaps if the follow-up repeats the recipe, we’d have a problem, but for now, Joanna Gruesome are doing just fine.