“The first record in a decade from the cult Scottish miserablists!” screams a sticker slapped on the front of The Just Joans’ most recent LP. The sticker’s proclamations are true; their loyal clutch of fans have waited a long time for You Might Be Smiling Now – although tonight’s show is far from miserable, as a giggly band gather on stage in north London, a long way from home but very much among friends.
The band – led by siblings Katie and David Pope – are behind some of the indiepop scene’s favoured anthems; If You Don’t Pull and What Do We Do Now particularly boosting their reputation as sensitive gloomsters. Their latest record continues their tradition of smart, cynical and relatable sing-alongs, but injects some musical playfulness that’s been missing until now.
References to Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura abound – of course they do, they’re from the same country, and appeal to the same demographic. But there’s something more real about The Just Joans; they’re one of us. Where Stuart Murdoch bares his heart, The Just Joans bare their late nights staggering around bad clubs, the snotty-crying on the sofa and the giggling with your friends at the ridiculousness of it all.
With their newer tracks, the jangly guitars are eschewed for straight up melodies, as they rifle through the last six decades of pop. The show kicks off with O’Caledonia, as does the album – an immediate introduction into a sound that’s shifted direction just a fraction; unashamedly pop, with a stronger focus on melodies. But it’s songs like Johnny, Have You Come Lately, with its driving funk undertones, and the ’60s girl group-influenced No Longer Young Enough, that signal the real change. A new confidence that’s been a long time coming.
The mood of the new record is warmly nostalgic, both musically and lyrically. Whether it’s Katie musing on the friend who’d nowadays rather have an M&S Dine in for Two instead of hitting the town, or a tongue in cheek memory of a school friend’s teenage pregnancy. This is heightened by the collage that encases the actual LP, made up of polaroids, gig tickets and cut and paste pictures of the band’s favourite childhood stars.
The bands’ interaction on stage adds to it too, and brings to life their on-record personas; Katie looks quite the bedroom popstar as she sings stating down the mic through the disco lights, affectionately sneering at her brother. David, on the other hand, is somewhat bumbling, obviously identifiable as the sensitive, awkward indie kid behind some intentionally naïve and sometimes devastating lyrics.
Shrouded in spotlights, Katie looks like an MTV heroine as she silences the room with the synth-drenched Big Blue Moon – all she needs is a good back comb and a smoke machine. David has a go too, taking a solo spot for the similarly ’80s-sounding I Just Can’t Believe That You Miss Someone Else More Than Me. “Who’s did you like best,” he asks, rather daringly. After the response he got, let’s hope he’s not really that sensitive.
The Just Joans’ pop reinvention doesn’t come at the expense of their trademark wit or fabulously heavy Scottish accents, and the likes of You Make Me Physically Sick (or “you make me fizzzicallly sack” as the crowd singalong would have it – a tale of a couple considering having kids, despite loathing each other) has the audience chuckling – as does old favourite Durex Puppy (“For all the mad shaggers in the audience”). Later on David changes the lyrics to Hey Boy! To include the line “Woody Allen sex pest box set”.
It’s a sign of quality of their slowly growing back catalogue that two of their new record’s best tracks, Read In Public Places and perhaps their gloomiest song yet, I Only Smoke When I Drink, don’t get a look in tonight, but closing with What Do We Do Now? felt very apt, a nod to an evening spent with old friends.