Hailing from Modesto, California, Grandaddy is credited with bringing intelligence, melodic grace, and emotional depth to a rock scene more often marked by macho posturing and overpowering volume. The quintet rose to prominence in 2000 with their second album, Sophtware Slump, which launched the band to great popularity in Great Britain, Europe, and Japan. While not as well known in the United States, Grandaddy have garnered overwhelming critical plaudits in the American press and respect from several musicians for songs that lament the accelerated pace of modern life and humanity’s attendant loss of civility, while they champion the consoling and healing powers of nature. Robert Hilburn noted in Los Angeles Times:”[Grandaddy’s music’s] delicate, heartfelt, often melancholy edges are both refreshing and inspiring at a time when rock’s dominant tones are aggression and rage.”
Grandaddy creative mainstay Jason Lytle formed the band with bassist Kevin Garcia and drummer Aaron Burtch in 1992 in Modesto, a town 75 miles east of San Francisco. Lytle had a troubled youth; he lived with his father after his parents divorced, but the boy developed a drinking problem at an early age, and once spent 17 days in juvenile detention after being caught in a break-in. Due to these problems, he attended four high schools and was reportedly an outcast at all of them. Lytle was an avid skateboarder as a teenager and wanted to make a living from it until he tore a ligament in his right knee. Unable to participate in his favorite activity, he channeled his creative energy into music, amassing a large collection of old instruments and recording gear. Grandaddy worked as a trio until 1995 when guitarist Jim Fairchild and keyboardist Tim Dry-den joined the group. The group developed their music in the anonymity of Modesto, where not much of artistic worth happens, Fairchild told Daily Telegraph’s Neil Mccormick. “[Modesto’s] population is almost 200, 000, but it has the mindset of a [backwards] little suburb,”
Grandaddy’s 1996 recording debut, A Pretty Mess by This One Band, is a seven-track EP whose title effectively sums up the sound therein. The pervasive lo-fi slacker-rock approach resembles that of another popular cult band from northern California: Pavement. On A Pretty Mess, Grandaddy established their penchant for combining acoustic and electric guitars with an array of distinctive, cheap keyboards on many tracks, but the disc also boasts some of the group’s hardest-rocking songs—”Kim, You Bore Me to Death” and “Egg Hit and Jack Too”—which recall such college-rock favorites as the Breeders and Sonic Youth. In general, though, A Pretty Mess is an embryonic work that offers only faint hints of Grandaddy’s potential.
The band’s full-length debut Under the Western Freeway (1997) represents a significant progression in their music. While still defiantly low-budget, the sound is noticeably fuller and the songwriting more developed. The music ranges from the mournful dirge of “Nonphe-nomenal Lineage,” with Lytle’s voice reaching the tender poignancy of Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue, to the cheery, fuzzy ditty “A.M. 180,” which evokes Weezer. In between these poles lies more slacker rock infused with a romantic wistfulness and melodic grandeur. “Go Progress Chrome” and “Why Took Your Advice” evoke Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and Neil Young’s After the Goldrush, respectively; both reinforce Lytle’s somewhat Luddite philosophy. “Everything Beautiful Is Far Away” expresses Lytle’s dissatisfaction with being on the road with his band instead of in the countryside near his home, but is sung from an astronaut’s perspective while on another planet. In a review on the Pitchfork Media website, Jason Josephes observed: “There’s a seriously morbid, poignant sense of sadness that runs through [Under the Western Freeway] and hits all of those parts of your heart that masochistically enjoy being f***ed with.”
As a stopgap between albums, Grandaddy released Broken Down Comforter Collection in 1999. The disc gathers their A Pretty Mess EP along with the rare vinyl-only EP Machines Are Not She and other oddities. All the tracks on Broken Down Comforter Collection, including some bonus material, were repackaged and reissued—without Grandaddy’s approval—by Lake-shore Records in 2002 under the title Concrete Dunes. The band’s protests notwithstanding, Concrete Dunes offers a fine overview of Grandaddy’s early years. The collection also reveals some atypical facets, such as the disjointed, avant-jazz introduction to “Levitz,” the novelty-like mock-spooky rock of “Sikh in a Baja VW Bug,” and the Galaxie 500-esque gospel ballad “My
Members include Aaron Burtch , drums; TimDry den . keyboards; Jim Fairchild , guitar; Kevin Garcia , bass; Jason Lytle , vocals, guitar, keyboards.
Group formed in Modesto, CA, by Lytle, Garcia, and Burtch, 1992; Fairchild and Dryden joined group, 1995; released debut EP A Pretty Mess by This One Band, 1996; full-length debut Under the Western Freeway, 1997; established own Internet-only label, Sweat of the Alps, which issues two albums a year; released Sopht-ware Slump, performed at the Reading Festival, 2000; covered the Beatles’ “Revolution” in the film I Am Sam, 2002; released album, Sumday, 2003.
Small Love.” “Wretched Songs,” a doom-laden orchestral-rock song that sounds like Neil Young fronting the Beatles circa Abbey Road, also makes Concrete Dunes worth hearing. Michael Trundle remarked in the online Hybrid magazine: “While not all the tracks on [Concrete Dunes] are of the stellar quality and production of those on Slump, they provide a wonderful opportunity to view the band in its infancy.”
Grandaddy rocketed to notoriety in Great Britain, Europe, and Japan upon the release of Sophtware Slump in 2000. With the marketing might of V2 Records behind them, the group toured extensively, winning rave reviews for both the album and their live performances, which included an appearance at the prestigious Reading Festival in England. Widely viewed as the American counterpart to Radiohead’s OK Computer, Slump is often construed as a concept album about the accelerating speed of technological obsolescence and, consequently, humanity’s despair over a world becoming too complicated and sterile. The epic opener, “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot,” sets the disc’s plaintive, expansive tone. An insistent, distorted banjo riff gives way to a wide-screen, easy-flowing ballad in the vein of Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, all profoundly meaningful strings, reflective piano notes, and burbling electronics. The song finishes with a dreamy swirl and a mantra sung by Lytle: “Are you giving in, 2000 man?” “Jed the Humanoid” soars into syrupy, Soft Bulletin-era Flaming Lips territory as it relates the tragic tale of a robot that drinks itself to death.
The disc’s most accessible cut, ’The Crystal Lake,” asserts nature’s superiority over civilization to the accompaniment of arpeggiated keyboards and fuzzed-up guitars. “Broken Household Appliance National Forest” continues that theme, rebuking people who corrupt nature’s pristine state; it concludes with Grandaddy’s most caustic sonic attack. A critic on the New Musical Express (NME) website observed: “[Grandaddy] have found a way to reconcile man and machine—by taking control of the devices at hand and making something truly beautiful, mysterious and timeless.” Lytle told Daily Telegraph’s Neil McCormick that with Sophtware Slump, he was “just having fun looking at how awkwardly we’re all trying to incorporate new technology into our everyday lives.” He continued, “It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like a country bumpkin, but people’s ability to appreciate and absorb, to take time to understand, isn’t important anymore.”
Sumday, the much-anticipated 2003 follow-up to the breakthrough Slump, may seem like a disappointment to Grandaddy fans expecting an advancement of their art. While Grandaddy’s music has always possessed an air of resignation, on Sumday that quality comes wrapped in lackadaisical chugging songs that, for the most part, have had their edges and quirks sanded down to soft-rock blandness. The album is heavy on fragile ballads that tip into sentimentality, sometimes verging on the cloying work of Bread and Electric Light Orchestra. That said, Sumday does contain some interesting songs: “The Group Who Couldn’t Say” and “Stray Dog and the Chocolate Snake” tap into Pavement’s clever, quirky indie-rock style with wacky keyboard sounds while “The Warming Sun” is a lavishly melodic Beach Boys homage. Sonically and lyrically, however, Sumday retreads familiar ground, albeit not as interestingly as that heard on Grandaddy’s previous releases. As Lytle confessed to Allison Stewart of CD Now,”I guess that [like Radiohead] we’re just trying to stretch the boundaries of whatever has been considered pop format music. We’re beginning to realize just how big a challenge that is.”
A Pretty Mess by This One Band (EP), Will, 1996.
Under the Western Freeway, Will/V2, 1997.
Broken Down Comforter Collection, V2, 1999.
Signal to Snow Ratio (EP), V2, 1999.
Sophtware Slump, V2, 2000.
Concrete Dunes, Lakeshore, 2002.
(Contributor) I Am Sam (soundtrack), V2, 2002.
Sumday, V2, 2003.
Daily Telegraph, February 1, 2002.
Los Angeles Times, December 3, 2000.
“Grandaddy,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 3, 2003).
“Grandaddy: Concrete Dunes,” Hybrid, http://www.hybridmagazine.com (April 3, 2003).
“Grandaddy: The Sophtware Slump,” New Musical Express, http://www.nme.com (April 2, 2003).
“Grandaddy: Under the Western Freeway,” Pitchfork Media, http://www.pitchforkmedia.com (April 3, 2003).
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