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Forget the atrocious, self-sabotaging band name. Forget the predilection for facial hair, baseball caps endorsing farm machinery, and other unsightly excrescences of what, sartorially speaking, can only be described as John Deere chic. Forget, even, that the band’s unique 4-H-meets-3M sound is probably best imagined as some drug-fueled, mid-’70s collaboration between Neil Young and the Alan Parsons Project. No, all you really need to keep in mind is this: Along with the likes of Sparklehorse and Brother JT, the Modesto, Calif., quintet is further proof that America’s best rock music is coming not from L.A., Chicago, or New York, but from the dark side of the boonies.
Grandaddy established itself as a force to be reckoned with its 1997 LP, the excellent Under the Western Freeway. But it wasn’t until 2000’s The Sophtware Slump that frontman Jason Lytle found a theme to match his strange musical gifts and obvious ambition. With its bleak but funny vision of a dystopian future in which robots get drunk out of loneliness and our concept of natural landmarks has been expanded to include the Broken Household Appliance National Forest, The Sophtware Slump was that rarest off all things: the intelligentand intelligibleconcept album.
As such, it put Grandaddy in the same class with indie-prog favs the Flaming Lips as updaters of the kind of high-flown art-rock personified by, well, the aforementioned Parsons, whom Lytle once paid cheeky tribute to with a Christmas song called “Alan Parsons in a Winter Wonderland.” However, unlike the Lips, whose ever-quickening drift toward orchestration seems destined to end in a slush of ultrahip Muzak, Grandaddy hasn’t forgotten the transformative power of the electric guitar. Throw in some countrified melodies and Lytle’s fragile vocalswhich, speaking of Parsonses, have more in common with Gram’s than Alan’sand what you’ve got is a sound that reaches for the heavens but always has its shitkickers planted solidly on good ol’ American soil.
Die-hard Grandaddy aficionados, who’ve had to derive musical sustenance these past three years from a thin gruel of EPs and compilations, will be overjoyed to hear that their long ordeal is finally at an end. The new Sumday explores all the classic Grandaddy themes: loneliness, longing, losing yourself so hopelessly that home is a concept more than a place. And though you won’t find any eight-minute extravaganzas such as “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot” here, in terms of melodic invention, Sumday is every bit as big-picture as its predecessor.
“El Caminos in the West,” for example, is a melancholy yet upbeat meditation on separation, with Lytle singing, “Here comes the chaos/Perfectly on time again/Is it ever gonna end/I feel so far away from home/Always so far away” against a backdrop of “Mrs. Robinson” vocal stylings and a buzz-saw guitar that could’ve come straight off Rust Never Sleeps. And if Tim Dryden’s monolithic blocks of distorted keyboard hum aren’t enough to convince you that this is nothing less than the
greatest-ever salute to America’s favorite combination car-truck, I don’t know what is.
Similarly, the atmospheric “Yeah Is What We Had” finds Lytle walking “alone through howling winds/Fast food bags wrapped ’round my shins/Rememberin’/Wonderin’/In this life/Will I ever see you again?” while the guitars gouge huge chunks out of the silence and sleigh bells jingle and Aaron Burtch keeps mournful time on the skins. But lest you think Sumday is a bigger bummer than May rain, know that opening track “Now It’s On” is a catchy and propulsive guitar rave-up, a perfect stick-your-head-out-the-car-window-and-sing-along summer ditty that just happens to begin with some weird sound effects and lyrics about “ceasing to be…/Weathered and withering/Like in the season of the old me.”
That track is followed by the smooth-as-silicon “I’m on Standby,” a talking-robot throwback to The Sophtware Slump. “Bye bye,” Lytle sings, “I’m on standby/According to the work order that you signed/I’ll be down for some time…/I’ll be down for some time.” Meanwhile, an acoustic guitar waxes wistful and the rhythm section shuffles along as inexorably as the conveyor belt that moves our mechanized narrator “through the service door.” But if “I’m on Standby” is a look into Grandaddy’s past, “Saddest Vacant Lot in All the World” is a tender embrace of the here and now in the shape of a couple of woebegone lovers: “She’s in the kitchen/Cryin’ by the oven”; he’s “passed out in a Datsun/That’s parked out in the hot sun/In the saddest vacant lot in all the world….”
On paper, it probably sounds like another bland slice of American pie. But rootsy small-town schtick isn’t really Lytle’s thing, and if “Vacant Lot”‘s lyrics”But he’ll miss her when he goes/What a shame as/She drifts out of reach/While he’s still drunk asleep”don’t really make that clear, the music at least offers a hint. Even though the song is a fairly straight-ahead piano waltz, it opens with a bit of strangeness that is unmistakably Grandaddy-esque: a toy piano looped and re-looped until it sounds like nothing so much as the clickety-clacking of the tiniest assembly line in all the world.
“Stray Dog and the Chocolate Shake” is a more typical example of the Lytle aesthetic. A perky, drum-machine-powered piece of lyrical surrealism enlivened by the most adorable lil’ synth figure you ever did hear, it features a storyline about a carload of juvies “burning out and doing lawn jobs in the park,” a limo driver with “his weird cologne and his magic hair,” and a high-school football coach who seems to have a predilection for playing sadistic practical jokes on stray dogs. Oh, and robots that “have to work in the dark.” And there you were feeling sorry for the dog.
Of course, Lytle’s sympathy extends to more than just the circuit-boarded, and on Sumday, it embraces pretty much every last lost one of us. The midtempo “Lost on Yer Merry Way” even makes homesickness sound like a fatal disease, which it very well may be: “I wanna get back home…/Back home…/Back home…/Back home tonight,” sings Lytle, the band playing a remorseless space-rock guitar groove that nodsbut never bows down toBuilt to Spill. The acceptance-of-mortality ode “O.K. With My Decay,” by contrast, is all soaring chorus, layering strings and vocals atop a propulsive rhythm that will carry you along just as life doesso you might as well lie back and enjoy the spacey synth burbles and bubbles and pretty piano figures that will be your traveling companions. But just when you’re ready to drift forever, you find yourself in a dark wasteland with the wind blowing and nothing but a lost-sounding robotic voice to keep you company.
It’s easy to see Lytle as some kind of prophet of technological entropy and existential despair. But nothing’s rarer than a prophet with a heartexcept maybe one with a sense of humor, which would make Lytle quite the item if he really were a prophet. Ultimately, though, he’s just a body who wants to go home, wherever that is. And that’s something everybodyfrom Odysseus to Dorothy to “Frogman” Henrycan relate to. CP