REVIEW: Big Joanie – Back Home

Big Joanie Back Home album cover

Big Joanie songs get under your skin and then in your bones. There is a thrum of bass, the heavy tom and snare (mallets in effect!), and then Stephanie Phillips comes in sounding like Billie Holiday grabbed a guitar and transported into Sleater-Kinney.

This is one of the most exciting bands going right now and I have been looking forward to this album.

Executive summary of this review: This is the shit right here.

Post-punk is an elusive phrase, a misunderstood category. I mean who really cares, ultimately, about labels? I guess I do. If we are going to use them, let’s try for some accuracy. It doesn’t mean “interesting bands after The Ramones.”

Big Joanie is the apogee of post-punk, its best current manifestation.  Joy Division would have played with Big Joanie in a perfect timeless world. If somebody asks you what “post-punk” means, whip this album out and say, “Just listen to this.”

The album starts off with ‘Cactus Tree,’ a slow burn, building to a crescendo that is there before you notice it. Big Joanie is barely warming up, moving into ‘Taut,’ a complete banger. Big Joanie recently signed with Kill Rock Stars for its U.S distribution, the Pacific Northwest label that nurtured the riot grrrl movement. The band is doing that label proud right here.

‘Confident Man’ brings the synths in a beautiful way. Big Joanie is showing off. This album manages to survey the entire history of post-punk.  It’s a thesis statement. ‘In My Arms’ is a pivotal song, important enough to be reprised. It is a perfect distillation of the Big Joanie sound.  ‘Happier Still’ could be an outtake from Dig Me Out. ‘Today’ sounds like More Fun in the New World era X.

‘What Are You Waiting For’ shreds. The backup vocals and harmonies propel this song and the album as a whole. The counter-balance of Ms. Phillips nasally leads with the sweet commentary of her bandmates is entirely effective.

‘I Will’ reminds me of the fact that Big Joanie had one of the best songs of 2020, with Solange’s ‘Cranes in the Sky.’ I thought then that Big Joanie should get right of first refusal on all covers. This is one of the better ideas I’ve ever had. ‘I Will’ has a simple and effective hook delivered by an organ. Just when you’re getting comfortable, the guitar and synth come in strong with soaring backup vocals. Big Joanie is flexing its considerable muscle.

Lyrically, Big Joanie is a bit obsessed with time. (‘Count to 10,’ ‘Today,’ What Are You Waiting For’ etc.) If you are always looking to the past and future, you are in a whipsaw of regret and anxiety, finding it difficult to appreciate the moment

‘Insecure’ brings this all together explicitly and bares all. Ms. Phillips sings of visiting her friends who have moved on and away and settled down.  Or, is she taking the train even farther away, as she watches the terrain slowly disappear? Back- up vocals here are echoing the Pips, on a midnight train to somewhere else. This song packs an emotional wallop.

Ms. Phillips expresses regret and anxiety: “All my dreams seem way out of reach/How will I ever succeed?” I hope that Big Joanie understand that now, in this moment, it is one of the best bands on the planet. Sounds like success to me. Big Joanie is a gift.

Words by Rick Larson

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