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Big Joanie
Back Home Jasper Willems , November 2nd, 2022 08:51

Big Joanie go widescreen with ravenous joy on second album Back Home, exploring their studio muscle to the fullest

It's not like London three-piece Big Joanie didn't give us fair warning. Their chosen band name, after all, radiates cheeky bravado. 'Big Joanie' is Jamaican slang for acting big. And that's precisely what Estella Adeyeri, Stephanie Phillips, and Chardine Taylor-Stone accomplish on their polychromic second album Back Home.

Opening cut 'Cactus Tree' is as obstinate a departure from the plucky art punk stylings of debut Sistahs as you can imagine. In its essence, it sounds like an Afrobeat-inflected folk ballad, carried by Phillips' warm vocal delivery and Taylor-Stone's frenzied pulse. These elements are undercut by molten lava-drenched guitar pounce and tectonic digi-noises, somewhat reminiscent of TV On The Radio's track 'Playhouses' (from Return To Cookie Mountain). Whereas that particular production pushes the music into the futuristic bleeding-edge, 'Cactus Tree' seems to deliberately weave some of Big Joanie's cordial three-piece chemistry – with lush three-way harmonies – into its torrential synthesis, as if shielding a flickering candle amidst an electrical storm. It's one of the best album openers by a punk band in recent memory.

With Big Joanie rooting out their creative potential within a studio-environment, you'd assume such an intrepid pursuit won't align with an album entitled Back Home. Let's not forget the trite 'going back to their roots'-medley reaches beyond the punk rock canon for them; all three members draw inspiration from mainstream and underground sources alike, from The Ex to Solange Knowles (it's important to note that Phillips published a book last year, Why Solange Matters).

It makes sense for Big Joanie to expand further on their Black feminist fundamentals, and Back Home's more widescreen sound exists in conjunction with a broad distilling of their activism. 'Confident Man', for instance, is a piercing admonishment against shallow notions of confidence and beauty being customary to get ahead. It feels very deliberate how Big Joanie enwrap this particular subject in charming synth pop-artifice, as Phillips concludes, "I only want to be a more confident me." The band's flirtations with pop ecstasy don't end here either. 'Count To Ten' sounds like a demo of Kali Uchis' 'In My Dreams'; it's Big Joanie's first tryst at writing a candid love song, using the omnichord as the sole tool to underline that intimacy further.

At other points on Back Home, the sonic terrain is less refined, with songs alternating from somewhat forgettable to downright spectacular. The barren grunge-vestige 'What Are You Waiting For' and the post-disco/Fleetwood Mac hybrid 'Insecure' more or less live up to their respective names. However, you can sense Big Joanie's inquisitive 'will this actually work?' joie de vivre in their wavering sonic coalescence, a spirit running through Back Home like a jolt of lightning. This is a band trying to expand their songwriting beyond the established punk rock austerity, touching on more universal themes such as maintaining relationships under capitalism ('In My Arms'), breaking out of harmful patterns (the Pixies-indebted 'Taut'), the housing crisis (the rootsy 'I Will') and hurtful interactions (the baroque 'Your Words').

That high roller's disposition works out quite spectacularly on the record's standout tracks. 'Happier Still' is a post-angst noise-punk banger alleviated by candescent sax flourishes. Album closer 'Sainted' boldly masquerades a gothic Afro-diasporic folk tale into a wave pop club romp. Within this setting, Phillips' breezy, high-register voice – somewhat comparable to SPELLLING's Tia Cabral – oozes a sinister cool, heightening the premonition of Big Joanie as a genre-bending powerhouse.

Throughout these 13 songs, Big Joanie leave no stone unturned, sifting through fresh backdrops in which their ethos resonates. And for the large part, they brandish vision and resourcefulness aplenty in this all-embracing quest. If Sistahs lit a beacon, Back Home draws a roadmap – for both the band themselves and kindred spirits who have also been displaced. Indeed, it's a thrill to find out how Big Joanie will tread it.