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Big Joanie - Sistahs Music Album Reviews

The accomplished debut from the DIY UK post-punk trio is simmering with possibility and pure conviction.

Big Joanie singer-guitarist Steph Phillips and drummer Chardine Taylor-Stone first met at a black feminist consciousness-raising meeting in their adopted home of London. Taylor-Stone noticed Phillips’ Raincoats tote bag and a friendship bloomed, rooted in a mutual love for feminist punk rock and their hope for a more inclusive underground music scene. In 2013, they formed their minimal indie-punk trio—which now includes bassist Estella Adeyeri—with a deliberate intention of diversifying London DIY. They played their inaugural set of originals and covers (Nirvana, Pixies, TLC) at First Timers, a festival centered on marginalized voices and new bands. They chose the name Big Joanie to evoke strong women and nod to Phillips’ Jamaican roots.

The debut Big Joanie LP, Sistahs, is an impressively woven tapestry of affirmational lyrics, girl-group chants, and deep, slashing guitars that would have sounded very at home on Kill Rock Stars in the 2000s. Big Joanie’s barebones rock songs always sound like they’re simmering with possibility, with pure conviction, something that the best DIY bands communicate almost telepathically. They’re the kind of punks who sing lyrics proclaiming, “I’m the nicest girl you know,” and about a desire to “drown my sorrows in herbal tea.”

In its themes and compositions, Sistahs evokes the collectivity from which Big Joanie was born. Lead single and highlight “Fall Asleep” is an ode to community, a sing-song solidarity anthem that could recall All Hands on the Bad One-era Sleater-Kinney. It circles around the fear of falling asleep: “If I ever fall asleep/Now would you wake me from the dream/That’s kept me crying now for weeks.” The work can be wearying, this song seems to say, but friends lift you up. Sistahs is best, though, on diffuse tracks like “Way Out” and especially “Eyes,” which bears a classic kitchen-sink post-punk style and even features an inspired recorder solo. This adventurousness returns on the minute-long “Down Down,” an oblique, ominous experiment that knows two words (“down down”) can sometimes be enough.

The songs of Sistahs tackle tough emotional terrain: the fraying edges of relationships, platonic and romantic, that must end; the intersection of boredom and lust; the feeling of being tokenized as a person of color. The gummy “Used to Be Friends” has a brilliant refrain—“I’d like to be friends with you but I only feel hatred”—and that uninhibited rawness gives it an edge. When the backup vocal clicks into Phillips on “feel hatred,” it’s like cool assurance. Phillips one-ups herself on the Shangri-Las-like “How Could You Love Me,” tear-stained and sinister: “He thinks I’m a joke/Well he can go choke.” There’s a bravery in gravitating towards these difficult places. Sistahs knows that punk, really, is a willingness to move towards the messier edges of life, to actualize oneself within them.

In a limited-edition zine that accompanies Sistahs, Phillips writes about the sepia-toned and seemingly innocuous photo on the record’s cover: her aunt and mother, Joan Phillips, on holiday in England as teenagers. Phillips goes on to describe the racism her mother experienced on that vacation, of how she was almost conned out of accommodations she’d paid for and had to stand up for herself and demand them. On Sistahs, Phillips hoped to channel a similar spirit of resilience, of fortitude and resolve, of taking what is yours. This rings resoundingly from the record’s first song. “Don’t tell me to wait,” the band harmonizes on its clear-headed “New Year,” a song of self-respect and fearlessness in the face of life’s great blank canvas. Their DIY spirit is manifest in those five words, refusing the waiting room and fighting for who they want to be.

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