Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: On Joanna Gruesome and Why “Twee” Shouldn’t Be a Four-Letter Word

Douglas Martin was a groomsman at Andy Samberg’s wedding. Where were you the first time you heard the word twee? Back in the glory days of AOL Instant Messenger, I was chatting up a friend when...
By    September 23, 2013

joanna gruesomeDouglas Martin was a groomsman at Andy Samberg’s wedding.

Where were you the first time you heard the word twee?

Back in the glory days of AOL Instant Messenger, I was chatting up a friend when during our conversation, his older sister told him she wanted to listen to something with trumpets. After a few of my other suggestions were shot down for various reasons, I suggested Belle and Sebastian. I forget which song I was listening to, and since this conversation took place over a decade ago, I’m not going to pretend to remember. My friend’s sister wasn’t in the mood for Belle and Sebastian, saying it was “too twee.” Since this was during an indie re-education period for me — having spent the past few years primarily listening to hip-hop and only paying attention to rock bands I had already heard of or stumbled upon flipping through Spin at the grocery store — I asked, “Too twee? What does that mean?”

“Too dainty. Too precious. Too twee.”

Over the years, the subgenre of twee music — described as “rudimentary” and “childlike” even at its top-dollar best — has been effectively described in these exact terms, derided for its overt pleasantness or used as a strawman for the arrested development (no George Michael Bluth) of many post-adolescents of Western culture. Even the definitive word on this style of music (Nitsuh Abebe’s Twee as Fuck, my personal vote for the greatest article Pitchfork has ever published) contains an admission that a good deal of the twee music released even in its heyday was saccharine to the point of sprouting cavities.

This is not to say twee hasn’t produced some incredibly worthwhile stuff: Beat Happening, Black Tambourine, Talulah Gosh. And that’s just the stuff I’ve written about at length for this site, which is to say nothing about the second generation of C-86-inspired bands and the self-purported anti-twee of Vivian Girls’ still-remarkable self-titled album. Just when you thought Slumberland Records, the Def Jam of indie-pop music, was possibly moving into a darker new direction with the grayscale post-punk of Weekend and Wax Idols, they release the auspicious debut of Welsh twee-punks Joanna Gruesome.

Armed with a priceless modern indie in-joke of a name (shades of Courtney Love — the Lois Maffeo group, not the self-destructive widow of Cobain), a sterling DIY pedigree, and a litany of songs that sound like ripcord-pulling descendants of Tiger Trap’s oeuvre, the members of Joanna Gruesome come out of the gate swinging a lot harder than many of their twee forebears. Weird Sister almost instinctively opens with a song titled “Anti-Parent Cowboy Killers” and ends with a song called “Satan,” revealing the quintet as a bunch of clever tricksters shooting a clever wink to whoever predetermines them as a bunch of cutesy amateurs.

Don’t get it twisted, though: Their charms don’t only extend to savvy misdirection. They’re also a group of talented pop songwriters, using distortion pedals and squealing feedback to augment, not distract from, their knack for perfect pop melody. The opening and closing tracks are great examples of their songwriting skills, with “Anti-Parent Cowboy Killers” offering a dose of freewheeling, forward-moving cacophony with sweet-voiced vocals (and screaming!), while “Satan” is a cathartic build that leads to an explosion of melody, reminding me of something the mighty Eric’s Trip would have tried in their heyday.

Weird Sister proves to be a showcase of powers from a whip-smart band a great deal of influences and intuition at their disposal. “Sugarcrush” ends with the train almost flipping off the tracks, while sweet and autumnal “Wussy Void” is interrupted by a positively Sonic Youth-like dissonant coda. In fact, that arty dissonance rears its head on a number of the album’s songs, swerving clear of the untrained, elementary chords and structure of many a twee song. But then they swerve back into line with positively adorable song titles like “Lemonade Grrrl” and “Secret Surprise.” In alternate measure, you can see the band’s mythology crystallising before your very eyes, where you could see how a band who started out playing Field Mice covers could be the very same one who formed in an anger management group.

Everybody’s got their own form of pop music, the kind of music they listen to when they want to sing along with a simple, catchy melody. Twee bands get a bad rep for wanting to play a very specific style of pop music, even from music fans who openly love half of the Billboard Top 10 Singles of the week. Inside of all of us, that love for pop music is what brings us back to our earliest days as music fans, most of us being big enough suckers for catchy songs that we still can’t resist them to this day.

Twee is just another form of pop music, and like many of the pop stars we credit with turning music on its head, this small, homespun subgenre is capable of generating bands capable of gently pushing the margins back. If Weird Sister is any indication, Joanna Gruesome is fully capable of eventually doing the same to this much-maligned style of music.


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