Over the decades, many indie pop bands have explored the middle ground between harsh noise and sugary sweetness. This characterized genre forefathers like the Ramones and the Jesus & Mary Chain, early pioneers such as Black Tambourine and Tiger Trap, and modern torchbearers the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Best Coast. So although Joanna Gruesome isn’t doing anything new by contrasting jarring distortion with tuneful pop, it’s hard to think of another band that has presented this dichotomy quite as starkly as the Welsh five-piece.
Peanut Butter is the outfit’s second album, and the follow-up to 2013’s breakthrough effort Weird Sister. The band hasn’t cleaned up its act since then, and this much is instantly made clear by opener “Last Year.” That song storms out of the gate with an aggressive whirlwind of DIY distortion, lightning rhythms and strangled, hardcore-inclined shouting. But the at the 55-second mark, the clouds unexpectedly part — the yells are replaced by sweet vocal harmonies that intone a warm and snuggly melody. It’s blissful, although there are a few atonal chords thrown in along the way that hint at the storminess bubbling beneath the surface.
This sets the tone for Peanut Butter, which spends its svelte 22-minute runtime ping-ponging between chirpy twee and searing noise-rock. Often, these styles are starkly juxtaposed: “Honestly Do Yr Worst” begins as doe-eyed pop ditty, but singer Alanna McArdle shifts from a soft coo to a shout 41 seconds in. Occasionally, the band’s handiwork is a little more subtle, as “Crayon” deftly glides between angular dissonance and soothing melodic resolution. Closer “Hey! I Wanna Be Yr Best Friend” is the quietest and prettiest song of the bunch, but you half expect its looping, cyclical riff to explode with fuzz at any moment.
With so much ferocity and beauty packed into such a short album, this brand of Peanut Butter is slightly hard to digest. Only one song passes the three-minute mark (with most cuts hovering around two minutes or less), meaning that the hooks often breeze by before sufficiently worming themselves into the listener’s brain. It’s a restless style that makes for an exhausting listening experience.
But that’s all part of the thrill of Peanut Butter. Much like the food it’s named after, the album’s appeal isn’t that it’s salty or that it’s sweet — it’s that it manages to be both at the same time.