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Joanna Gruesome
Weird Sister Helen King , September 17th, 2013 09:03

The 'Weird Sisters' of Macbeth function as the perverse moral conscience of the play: sensing and toying with the innate hubris and arrogance of the eponymous protagonist, they allow his endemic faults to become the machine of his own unravelling. Those archetypal witches are both wickedly malevolent, and rigidly principled, mercilessly wringing delight from the sodden rag of a bad man's ugly soul, and, what's more, doing so with a surfeit of poetry and dark eloquence.

Joanna Gruesome, who now seem set to be casting a few potent spells of their own, achieve a lot with the nomenclature of this their debut album: it is a brilliant title, mostly because it cleaves right to the core of what this record will do. Weird Sister is a deeply assured, caustically playful album, which brims with fierce aspersions and sour intelligence, but does so with humour, a stringent ethical conscience, and substantial melodic exuberance. It knows how to amplify the connotative nuances of that word 'Sister', which in terms of the kind of musical heritage which percolates through it (via Sonic Youth, via feminism, via Sister Lovers, even) are nothing if not considerable. It is also pretty weird.

Already recognised for their kinetic live presence, the Cardiff/London five-piece have now delivered quite the calling-card of a debut. Opener 'Anti-Parent Cowboy Killers' (how I love these titles, as if some bastard child of Huggy Bear and The Nation of Ulysses had stumbled across a modern-day Caliban in a bereft basement somewhere and taught him how to speak) references Daniel Clowes' Ghost World and the oft-reinterpreted spiritual, 'Wade In The Water', all within a torrential, utterly decisive onslaught of abrasive pop noise, countered with girl/boy vocals so perfectly treacly and infectious you instantly find yourself arrested by an involuntary grin of awe and recognition.

And they don't let up: 'Sugarcrush' unabashedly rips into MBV's 'You Made Me Realise' before tumbling headfirst into something far more melodic and audacious, which, in spite of your first reservations, unreservedly justifies its title. In the same effective vein, I kinda like the knowing but somehow-not-cynical use of the spelling of 'Lemonade Grrrl': cringe-inducing in the hands of another band, JG get away with it by way of the excoriating smartness and self-awareness that oozes out of every snarling, fragile, and somehow familiar corner of this record. One of the more lyrically laconic of the ten songs (and they're all pretty laconic, actually), 'Lemonade Grrrl' nonetheless wryly traverses the prosaic scenery of each defiantly pointless relationship - "standing in your bathroom/feeling like it's over now" – before revelling in the glorious payoff that is "you and me will make them fucking hurl". It's a jubilant, melancholy track, perfectly sequenced to punctuate the brashness with a brittle tenderness that is all the more powerful for being a bit mishandled and skewed.

Incidentally, this is a band not afraid of using expletives. Swearing in songs – like the use of trumpets – is not something that just anyone can do without sounding like a dick. Joanna Gruesome don't sound like dicks. They sound like they know they're not. And that's a rare feat.

Standout tracks 'Madison' and 'Secret Surprise' dissect romantic schadenfreude and the seductive imagining of emotional pain as physical theatrics, respectively. During the latter, Joanna Gruesome somehow channel Prolapse at their most vitriolic ("I'll make you talk if you don't wanna"), as well as Galaxie 500 circa Today (no surprise to find the band covered 'Tugboat' on the flip of their first single from Weird Sister), whilst making you feel they could take or leave both, cos, you know, they are decades younger and decades cooler than both those bands.

Listen to 'Graveyard', and hear Huggy Bear, Boyracer, and Slant 6 echoing atavistically down through the feedback, as though all the tame imitations we've suffered in the interim had ended it all in an ostentatious but generally ignored paroxysm of affectation and aspartame played out in some dire Buzzfeed-sponsored corner of the internet. Final track 'Satan' ("you're red/you're mean/and you're in my fucking dreams") is a signpost that tells us JG know they have made a searing, vital pop record, but that it needs to be sealed by something gentle; and jarringly, devastatingly so, like all the best album closers.

Production-wise, the vocals are low in the mix and the lyrics often indecipherable, which frustrates at points; as does the occasional dulling of a rhythm section which deserves to sound as powerful as it is: but whatever. With Weird Sister, attentiveness pays off, and rewards with deeper comprehension of what this band are about. I think they know what they are doing. They know they are a lambent constellation: in Lan's gorgeously versatile vocals, in the abrasive yet syrupy guitars of George and Owen, and Max and Dave's emphatic rhythmic backdrop, JG don't need to foreground anything. Rather, they can allow the sound they make to become more than the sum of its individual parts, which is how all magic happens.

A friend, with strange aptness: "It's the feeling of getting thumped in the ear by the person sitting behind you", or, even better, "the moment you cut your hair at a friend's house". He's right: Joanna Gruesome are truly exciting, truly sharp, and truly jealousy-inducing, because they are so young and so evidently armed to the incisors with all the sophistication and violence you could ever wish for in a new group. Thank fuck for this band, who prove that youth still have stomachs and brains; and discerning ones at that. See you at the cauldron party.

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