Joanna Gruesome mash together lo-fi punk and fuzzy twee pop for a gleefully unbalanced follow-up to their acclaimed 2013 debut.
Joanna Gruesome is the type of band that could only exist today. There’s nothing particularly modern about their fuzzy twee pop lightly tipped with grimy ‘90s punk, but the way in which they integrate such oppositional genres together speaks to the current generation’s obsession with stylistic deconstruction and reappropriation. Peanut Butter, Joanna Gruesome’s second album, incites aural culture shock between lo-fi punk and shoegaze-lite pop, less a genuine blend of these styles and more of a stark clash between them. The album approximates what it might sound like for a Pains of Being Pure of Heart demo tape to be unceremoniously edited together with a Perfect Pussy record in an unrelenting tug-of-war, and if it seems like that would have an inhibitingly narrow appeal, that’s because it does.
Still, try not to be charmed by “I Don’t Wanna Relax”, which hilariously kicks off with a brutal thrash intro before matter-of-factly cutting to a summery vocal melody, or even the mild-mannered “Crayon”, featuring a bright chord progression frequently interrupted by bursts of dissonant guitar. Buzzing melodies engage in a back-and-forth with shouted vocals and propulsive instrumentation in songs like “Psykick Espionage”, “There is No Function Stacy” and “Last Year”, neatly condensing Peanut Butter’s prevailing gimmick into succinct album highlights.
But if Joanna Gruesome miscalculate anything in engaging in such a fluctuant style, it’s in tipping Peanut Butter’s scales more toward the guitar pop spectrum when their punk tendencies come off more sincere and unusual. To the detriment of their singular identity, the album’s focus is mostly on twee conventions, the spurts of noise acting more as interjections rather than defined sections themselves. It makes an already imbalanced record volatile in its instability.
Of course, that’s all part of the fun. The most provocative quality of Peanut Butter is the conflicting nature of its two influences, and yet, if punk and dream pop share any one quality, it’s that they both suffer from crippling sameness within their stylistic bounds. Joanna Gruesome’s off-kilter genre splattering counters this with an oblique take on those conventions, lending their punk sounds an element of sentimentality and their guitar pop an undercurrent of churning, gloomy friction, each style elevated beyond mere pastiche by virtue of the other’s presence. It’s an amusing but shallow gimmick, to be sure, but it’s also one unique to the band, and like all outlandish genre amalgams, it has its niche.
The basis of the sounds on Peanut Butter may be quintessentially retro, but the record lands the most blows from its execution. It’s an approach that’s uniquely postmodern, a car crash between two vintage underground rock styles in an era when everyone listens to everything and, as a result, the individual movements of our music culture are less defined and more all-encompassing. This century of music will be noted for that kind of stylistic cross-pollination where the culture feeds off of itself, where all contemporary art is a comment on everything else that came before it — a wave of "navelgaze". Joanna Gruesome, like so many young artists in the new millennium, are founded directly from that mentality, and Peanut Butter is one of the thousands of daring, whimsical, uneven results already here and still yet to be created from it.