Alanna McArdle is such a powerful singer that it’ll take two people to replace her. McArdle has been Joanna Gruesome’s chief calling card for years, the most striking element of various singles and their two albums, including the brand new Peanut Butter. She can leap from indie-pop sweetness to punk growls and back with ease, and that contrast has defined the band on both of their albums.
Peanut Butter is as rambunctious as their first album, Weird Sister, and might actually have a rougher edge. Songs like “Last Year” and “There is No Function Stacy” collide into themselves, allowing no relief or release from the escalating energy. “Honestly Do Yr Worst” is the band’s motif in microcosm, under two minutes of sugar-sweet verses and choruses, as pop-forward as anything by the Shop Assistants or Veronica Falls, with a bridge that crashes into a discordant riff and shrieked vocals. It works beautifully, though, the flavors making each other stronger. Only the album closer “Hey! I Wanna Be Yr Best Friend” eschews this dynamic; it’s a mellow but tuneful pop koan, a repeating bassline with boy/girl vocals and noise around the edges for 90 seconds before a triumphant guitar solo ends the album on a positive note.
The heavier portions might sound blunt at first, the transition between pop and noise a bit predictable as the album’s short length runs on, but it never loses its power for a few reasons. The band writes great songs, rarely playing the riff you expect them to, playing with ancient pop formulae but somehow producing results that don’t sound overly familiar. They’re also better musicians than you might first expect; they smartly don’t try to wow you with needlessly complicated rhythms or parts, but there’s a dexterity to how the notes are phrased, to how the guitars, bass and drums chug at full speed before quickly shifting into an aberrant chord, to how the keyboards alternately stab through the churn or provide a backdrop for everything else to build on. Most importantly though Peanut Butter has McArdle’s voice, an irrepressible musical weapon. She’s being replaced by Kate Stonestreet of the Scottish band Pennycress and Roxy Brennan of Two White Cranes and Grubs; perhaps together they can do what McArdle could do, and what she apparently paid a mental and physical toll for doing.
Despite the shifts in tone and the almost constant rush, the record never really sounds jittery or on edge. Fragility often underpins indie-pop, even the noisier strands, but Joanna Gruesome never sounds fragile. Peanut Butter is an accomplished, confident and mature approach to a type of music indebted to teenage energy, a record that veers between styles of music that are often at odds with one another without ever feeling indecisive or confused.