#1. Jumbling Towers – The Kanetown City Rips
Ever since Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band blew about a billion minds back in 1967, the novelty of the “concept record” has worn off incrementally with each passing decade, and by the turn of the millennium, the concept (!) had been all but relegated to a punchline.
So if concept albums have long been rendered decidedly uncool, what then would have sparked Jumbling Towers’ decision to embrace not only a unifying theme on their second LP, but to further conceive of a fictitious community of orphan teens living in an abandoned industrial hub sometime in the early 1980s? According to singer and songwriter Joe DeBoer, “The backdrop of the concept just provided new narratives to follow within this weird, newly created world, which was much more fun than classic, apathetic Generation Y storytelling and vague referencing, which is pretty much what I’ve done in the past.”
[NOTE: I’ve already dissected the band’s past in depth in my review of last year’s excellent EP,Ramifications Of An Exciting Spouse, so I’ll spare you the rehash. But you should really read it!]
“The concept actually stemmed from one of the first rough tracks we were recording”, DeBoer explained in a 2009 interview with Tiny Mix Tapes. “It just sounded like something not 2000s (due in part to our lack of studio polish) yet fresh, not related to an actual era in music history, like a collection of songs from a yet-to-be discovered place that were lost in the archives of musical history.” And where was that place? Well, Kanetown City, of course. ”When I write down the concept, it kind of sounds like a nine-year-old’s idea for a movie or a Newsies meets Hook spin-off, but it worked for us.” The comparison sounds a little too Disney for the album’s spooky, vacant tone, but the parallels to both films’ ragtag gangs of adolescents further enhances the image of the kids of Kanetown City – the “Rips” referenced in the album title.
The tone of the album is instrumental in constructing the world of Kanetown City, as vintage synths and outdated drums machines get crushed and crunched, reverberating off of crumbling concrete walls. Samples of shrill voices shouting and howling indecipherably echo down empty streets corridors and alleyways. As “Charge of the Runts” begins, you can close your eyes and picture the decrepit machinery, hissing and whirring, operated by still-growing hands. Fires burn in old rusted trash barrels, and groups of small bodies gather to eat, smoke, and barter before returning to their labor. As they work, they sing, like a lost tribe trying not to forget their own story. The song is brief, a mere introduction to the world we’re entering, but the sonic imagery is evocative, with the booming drums and sparks of Rhodes falling into an industrial lurch. The lyrics begin the story: “All the kids are in their coats \ all the kids are singing notes \ they got to feeling right \ it’s the feel of tens of thousand hopes \ so call it the charge of the runts \ way down in kanetown’s walls \ and we’ll wail on now”.
With the close of the opening number, the company leaves the stage and the spotlight zeroes in on a young girl, “Gilberta”. Call her the story’s “ingenue”. She’s a dreamer, but in a world of harsh reality, dreams don’t enjoy a great deal of respect. Most of the Rips in Kanetown struggle just to find clothes to wear, as growth spurts relegate their own garments to hand-me-downs, but not Gilberta – she dresses for more than warmth and decency. She strives for fashion amongst kids who don’t understand the concept, and as most teenage majorities tend to be, the Kanetown kids are heartless in their jeers. The number begins with a gritty hip-hop beat, complete with clapsnare, a squirmy bassline moving under DeBoers’ stairstep melody: “Is it cold down there? \ I’ll take ‘em overboard in your place \ when they’re down on your will \ there’s no fall man here”. The electric glow of overdriven synth-pad stabs enter, immediately infusing the song with a euphoric hope, in the face of Gilberta’s outcast status. The soaring pop gem of a chorus arrives, with the storytelling hero helping Gilberta to escape the scapegoating and let go of any fear: “And why don’t you borrow my leather coat \ along with all of my vests \ there’s no fall man here \ there’s no holding on to your fear \ take your final lunge”. Her dreams are not to be crushed, you see, for she serves a higher purpose among the youth: “You’re on top of all of this \ no one could shake you that way \ you’re the only one who’s got soul \ take your final lunge \ you’re the high elect \ who could save all the rips our fate”.
No story is complete without its central villain, and the tale of Kanetown is no exception. Next we meet “The Bombaree”, whose entrance is accompanied by dark piano pulses and a shuffling groove. Though a mysterious and ominous figure who haunts the streets of Kanetown, we’re soon reminded that he’s not to blame for the Rips’ misfortunes. Aloft a classic pop melody, DeBoer enlightens the audience: “The bombaree, he’s mean \ but he’s not the worst of all, you see.” As the chorus arrives with sunrise synth swells, DeBoer continues: “No, he’s not making your sorrow \ he’s not making your hollow \ the one that you wanted to see when you’re knocked down \ he’s not making your mis-steps \ the one that you wanted to see when you’re down on your knees”. So who is to blame for the plight of the Rips? Is it God? Is it their long-absent parents? Or is it the kids themselves? The pondering wanders along with DeBoer’s delirious “la-la” trailoff, floating over the building storm, before being abruptly interrupted by shrieking, shouted paranoia (meanwhile evoking the Fab Four’s zanier moments): “Who is the Bombaree!?” “I am the Bombaree!” “Where is he!!??” “Show your face! Show yourself!”
The show goes on, with “We Could Live West” touching on the dreams of the Rips, who think often of a better life, far West of Kanetown in “some exotic, tepid air”. The song bounces with a beautifully-crafted rise and fall melody before ascending to a falsetto chorus of “la”s, draped over the verse melody. “Hype” opens with a tambourine shake and blurting synth oscillation before giving way to a knocking, head-nod beat. The slinky, serpentine groove of the song is immediately infectious, and the creepiness is accentuated by background injections of maniacal laughter. The song works its way from one subtle earworm to another, and employs some of the best pop turns on the album. “Black Courage” is equally song-savvy and seductive, with its tense verse build turning briefly toward catchy golden oldie pop and then back. Foreboding organs descend as the chorus resolves, sending the song back into its edgy shift and slide. All three songs in “Act II” outline the Rips’ hopes and dreams, jealousies and fears, and speak to their potential ability to muster the courage to achieve and conquer, even if it is at the expense of others…
“Put Your War Paint On” begins Act III with a tumbling martial drum beat and a fanfare of synthetic horns. The verse carries the measured air of feigned casualness before casualty, conference before conflict. Sides are being taken and strongholds are being fortified: The Rips are going to war. The subtle, featherweight chorus melody is repetitive and brief, floating aloft on the hot air of the building conflagration. Rolling drum pulses mount and piano keys pound, as chanting voices echo in the street, closing in on one another, until sides clash in a sonic cacophony, organs and synthesizers squealing and howling in agony. And then it’s over as quickly as it began. All that remains is DeBoer and his somber Rhodes. Trapped in the uncertainty of resolution, his character struggles to issue direction: “Get your head out of there \ the worst is now over \ go get some rest \ and possibly something is beckoning \ the worst is not over now \ don’t go to sleep”.
A celebration of sorts seems to follow in the gorgeously joyous “That’s Some Boredom”, with DeBoer even utilizing some rare vocal harmonies. The song builds with a deliberate kick stomp and fervent tambourine, filling in the spaces with warm key swells. The song sounds upbeat enough, but the Rips are facing the reality of a return to the mundane, left with the question of what to do after the fighting is over, and “Where do we go from here?” The looping, incessantly hooky melody of the closing title track certainly has the feel of a happy ending, with the sunny overtones implying some semblance of resolution. But before the curtain call, the Rips gather together center stage to sing one last time, sending the audience off with the image of a community hopelessly torn but not broken, and forever abandoned but not lost: “We’ll fall back on higher ground \ we won’t give up our outcast sound \ but there’s no higher ground in here that we can win \ we’ll fold \ there’s no higher ground to find here”.
The Kanetown City Rips is an achievement in many regards: the scope of its narrative, the uniqueness of its sonic backdrop, the strength and consistency of its pop songcraft, and the brief moments of emotional pull from what would generally be deemed outlandish fiction. But I think its greatest achievement is its ability to simultaneously excel so thoroughly in each of these areas. It’s generally conceded that perfect albums don’t come along often, though Pitchfork (and I suppose many others) dared to deem Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a perfect 10, despite its many flaws. That’s the brilliance of Kanetown: it is truly flawless, not only because of its invariable quality, but because it is entirely self-contained, existing in its own context. Jumbling Towers didn’t make this album – the Rips of Kanetown did, somewhere back in the 1980s. And because it is a perfectly crafted pop document of that fictitious time and place, it is, in my humble estimation, the best (and subsequently, my favorite) album of 2010.
RIYL: Menomena, Gorillaz, Destroyer, Interpol, Kenna, The Pixies, Bauhaus, The Beatles