For a man whose musical endeavours have largely been characterized by a sort of affable impenetrability, Stephen Malkmus’ fans are a remarkably devoted bunch, huddled stoically in the cold outside the Brudenell and waiting for the (delayed) doors to open. The venue’s already more or less full by the time Cardiff noise-pop outfit – and easily one of the UK’s most exciting new bands – Joanna Gruesome take to the stage and proceed to raise all kinds of hell. They’re a ferocious proposition live, singer Alanna McCardle screaming “you want me so much you can’t breathe, I dream of pulling out your teeth” like a woman possessed, moving seamlessly between breathily disdainful and genuinely menacing. Live, their sound is an endearingly ramshackle synthesis of the shoegazey, C86-ish pop of Veronica Falls and the blazing fury and stage presence of Bikini Kill, all tempered by a nineties alt-rock wash of warm, fuzzy distortion that’s perfectly suited to venues like the Brudenell. McCardle departs and exits through the crowd halfway through the last song, leaving the rest of the band to end it in a squall of queasy feedback. When they cohere as a group Joanna Gruesome are incandescent, and if it all feels as if things might properly fall apart any minute, well, that’s kind of part of the appeal.
Wandering amicably onstage, Malkmus is greeted enthusiastically and the Jicks tear into new album track ‘Rumble at the Rainbo’ and its wryly self-aware invitation to “come slam-dancin’ with some ancient dudes” without preamble. The band are visibly at ease with each other, which is more than can be said for the Pavement reunion shows of a few years ago, joking between songs, and there’s a palpable sense of easygoing comfort created by a band who don’t really have anything left to prove anymore. There are understandable first-night-of-the-tour stumbles, with lyrics not quite committed to memory yet (“we just did, like, a week of press about the album and didn’t play at all. We can tell you anything you want to know about this album, though! Except maybe the lyrics.”) and persistent technical issues that prompt an irreverent Q & A session (“Do I have pets? Yeah, I have two cats … and crabs” Malkmus grins), but when everything’s working the jagged guitars and sturdily grooving rhythm section are on as fine a form as they’ve ever been.
As lyrically aslant as ever, the Jicks are one of not very many bands who can instigate a rousing singalong to lines like “I know what the senator wants, what the senator wants is a blowjob” and the less straightforward but rather marvellous “we lived on Tennyson and venison and The Grateful Dead”. There are also several interludes of sort-of-jazzy-country-proggy-soft-rock jamming, pitched somewhere between Cream and Steely Dan, and building on the roomier structures of the Wig Out At Jagbags material. How you feel about this depends entirely on your tolerance for sort-of-jazzy-country-proggy-soft-rock jamming. The first song of the encore is an unexpected outing for Pavement’s ‘Harness Your Hopes’, sun-drenched and sprightly, which gets pretty much the whole room beaming and dancing. “We learned that one…Pavement never did,” Malkmus notes, and bassist Joanna Bolme instantly deadpans “Didn’t stop them playing it,” before the band close with the triumphant one-two of ‘Forever 28’ and ‘Baby C’mon’, making it eminently clear that tonight is firmly about the present-tense iteration of the Jicks rather than recapturing the past.
(Picture from a previous gig at the same venue).