Grampall Jookabox Ropechain

[Asthmatic Kitty; 2008]

Styles: psychedelic pop
Others: Beck, of Montreal, Animal Collective

For many of the bands with whom Grampall Jookabox is likely to be compared, sonic experimentation is as much artifice as art, a mask to hide largely empty songs behind. It makes for easy infatuation, but tends to offer diminishing returns as the layers of sound are peeled back to reveal a vacuous core of meaningless gibberish. What places Ropechain, Grampall’s second release for Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label, above its emotionally vacant peers is a willingness to trade drugged-out euphoric rambling with tangible anxiety.

The album rides its paranoia into absurdist tomes on life’s biggest questions: God, love, birth, death, madness, and Michael Jackson. “Strike Me Down” addresses man’s relation to God in a fearful, nervous lament. Repetition plays an important role here, like a crazed rambling. Dave Adamson, Grampall’s singular figure, croons, “Oh, God is comin’ back/ He spoke to me” over and over again in a brittle falsetto, breaking only to exclaim, “Strike me down/ Strike me down.” Backwards tape loops and disembodied voices swirl around Adamson’s anxious, solitary speaker as drums clatter out a repetitive stomp. “I Will Save Young Michael” and “I’m Absolutely Freaked Out” both pose the King of Pop as a vehicle for exploring mental instability.

Indeed, there’s humor in Ropechain’s paranoia, but like most good jokes, it’s a way to prod at some hidden truth we can all acknowledge. This device is perhaps most notable on lead single “The Girl Ain’t Preggers,” which, with its funky bassline and declaration of “Don’t it make you feel good when the girl ain’t preggers,” rings true enough to warrant at least a smirk. But the song also rolls itself into a surrealist demonstration of exactly the type of anxiety — again, expressed with jarring drums and a spectral choir of wordless vocals — that the idea of an unexpected birth can create. And, sure enough, the song flips itself around from “I need some money right now/ Ain’t got no money I can’t pay for no baby” to “I love a baby face/ I love a baby face, I want to kiss the baby,” and from “Don’t it make you feel good” to “Don’t it make you feel sad when the girl ain’t preggers.” The duality of a potential father’s emotions, both sides equally nervous, is conveyed in the song.

Here, surrealism is a vehicle to reach uncomfortable truths or to address the anxieties that plague us all. Sonic embellishment is, instead of a collection of pretty sounds mashed together, a mode to manipulate dynamic and mood. Adamson claims the album was influenced by meditations on madness and paranormal activity, and it shows. Otherworldly voices moan and squawk. Nervous energy drives the record between straightforwardness and opaque abstraction. But together, the sum is a fully realized psychological exploration. When the layers of sound are peeled back, you’ve still got Adamson’s lonely paranoia. But without the ghosts he calls company, the vision is much more chilling.

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