In 2011, Jookabox announced their fourth album and at the same time announced that the project had been wound up. As the band's PR put it at the time, they had "written their own epitaph", their "last cryptic transmission". To release an album from beyond the grave was a perfect fit, given the group's sense of humour and affinity for all things morbid and supernatural. These same aspects make their music worth returning to in the otherworldly and anxious circumstances of a global pandemic.
Formed in Indianapolis by David "Moose" Adamson, the group was originally known as Grampall Jookabox and released a first album, Scientific Cricket, in 2007. A kind of warped, lo-fi folk record, it bears little resemblance to Adamson's later work but did help secure a signing to Asthmatic Kitty Records, which maintains an office in Indianapolis.
It was on the second album released under the Grampall Jookabox name that a lasting sound would begin to take shape. Ropechain was released by Asthmatic Kitty in 2008, and showcased a more electronic, varied style taking in alt hip-hop, rock, and psychedelia. Adamson's surreal lyrics and extensive use of pitch-shifted vocals combined with a home-made, basement feel creates a distinct personality. Even an amusingly sneering Pitchfork review captured this its description of the album as "the desperate product of being alone for too long"; something easy to understand in an era of lockdown.
While Pitchfork complained that Adamson "doesn't have much to say", the album contains some wry observations. This is particularly true of the excellent "The Girl Ain't Preggers", the cornerstone of the the LP and a song which reviewers seemed desperate to misunderstand. Initially, Adamson's character expresses relief that a baby isn't on the way, because of his dire material conditions:
"I quit my job with the man now
Again, it's a sentiment that is even more relevant today than it was in 2008. Later, the song's chorus alters its tone from relief to sadness; our hero might not feel able to be a father, but would sure would love to do so. As heavy as this topic can seem, the song is enormous fun - with a driving rhythm, an anxiously jangling sound, and inventively manipulated vocals.
Adamson adopted the shorter name of Jookabox for the third album, Dead Zone Boys, which was released in 2009. It's here that the real lockdown atmosphere comes through. Indianapolis is one of the archetypal Rust Belt cities, and the urban decay of its East Side, and particularly the Irvington neighbourhood - or "the Irv" - weighs heavily on the songs. Adamson's music and lyrics transmute the mundane civic neglect of the East Side into something supernatural, and the album is populated by zombies, phantoms, evil girls, and a palpable sense of dread.
The sound is more sophisticated, and with less of a home-made feel. Tribal drums, chants and electronic effects support the otherworldly atmosphere, but the album is still full of humour. "You Cried Me" is a manic love song about the undead, which was supported with ananimated video about a vampire and a ghost on the run. "Light" may be the album's best song, a late highlight which leans heavily on Adamson's pitch-shifted vocals and which builds to a hectic pace.
With their final and posthumous album The Eyes of the Fly, Jookabox maintained much of the atmosphere of Dead Zone Boys and the two LPs could be seen as halves of the same whole. By the time Jookabox had wound up, "Moose" Adamson had built from his musical influences and the East Side of Indy a whole strange mythology of his own. In its nervous energy, its gloomy disposition tempered by humour and a desire for good times, the Jookabox style seems good company for a world in crisis.
I write about books, film, videogames, boardgames and music. I'm a contributor to Entertainium.