While the music business goes about choosing its acts like a high school popularity contest, music's ranks of losers, loners and sensitive souls continue to prove true art is borne of greater hardship than bad hair days and poor fashion sense.
Looking more like members of the truckers' local than a band with their heavy beards, ball caps and penchant for flannel, Grandaddy had already secured some serious acreage in the land of critical favor with their last album, 2000's Sophtware Slump, but they make an even more dramatic land grab with their latest, Sumday, due out June 10. The difference this time, the band will tell you, is clarity -- a move away from the dense progressiveness of its earlier work and toward something more full-bodied and lovely.
"A lot of people thought we were trying so hard to be difficult, but we did the best we could with what we had," explains guitarist Jim Fairchild. He credits the album's new, bolder sound to improvements the band's made in their home studio, where they've recorded each of their albums. "Over time we've gotten better equipment, better gear. We've upgraded our studio, and that makes a big difference."
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High school misfits from Modesto, California, united by their disgust of the state's small-town attitudes and sterile sprawl, Grandaddy's members have long felt like outcasts within their town's environs, like burners exiled to the fringes of the high school hierarchy. That disaffection runs like a thread through their work, conveying a sense of loneliness and longing that infuses their music with a melancholy air.
Yet on Sumday, the misanthropic aspects resolve into something more introspective and hopeful. Awash in hooks and lush pop melodics, the lyrics express a bittersweet resilience lightened with a humorous touch as the band condenses their often languorous lo-fi epics into some of the prettiest pop music since the Flaming Lips' Soft Bulletin.
Like much of the Lips' opus, Grandaddy's two previous full-lengths are rife with sound textures, loops, ghostly vocals, static and assorted electronics draping their sad songs in frayed sonic finery. Enveloped in such gauzy effects, the band's drawn frequent comparisons to Radiohead and Sparklehorse, but on Sumday they crawl out of the basement and into the warm sunshine thanks to an album that owes its allegiance to Phil Spector's Wall of Sound '60s symphonics.
For his own part, singer and chief songwriter Jason Lytle recently name-checked Spector in describing his more concise approach, suggesting that he welcomed the challenge of fine orchestration. "It's like watching the same TV show, but having a bigger screen and better TV," Lytle recently told the Modesto Bee, his hometown paper. "The focus and quality are better."
While not completely scrubbed of their idiosyncrasies, Grandaddy's new approach is more straightforward. Most of the tracks clock in at under four minutes, and where the mood of Sophtware Slump recalled a hazy, haunted vista exemplified by the icy synth opening of "Broken Household Appliance National Forest," the new album bubbles with a shiny pop energy from the start. The album-opening track, "Now It's On," recalls the sunny melodicism of the Elephant 6 collective, as singer Lytle embraces the new day -- "I wouldn't trade my place/I've got no reason to be/Weathered and withering like the season of the old me," he sings.
Lytle's rediscovered confidence resonates through the entire record as the band explores new directions, from the organ-fed garage pop of "El Caminos in the West," with its taste of the Raspberries, to the gentle piano and sun-soaked harmonies of "Saddest Vacant Lot in All the World," to album-closing "The Final Push to the Sum," which rides Lytle's fragile vocals over organ, tinkling piano and timpani, as he intones, "What have I become?"
Fairchild confirms the album's inward orientation. "There's a lot of questioning of what's going on, and what you're good at and what you're bad at. I think it's a lot more personal record. There's a lot more I's and me's," he says.
While the self-questioning tone persists across the album, it's under-girded by a feeling of acceptance, as expressed in the elegiac epic "I'm OK With My Decay," and even the high-spirited "I'm on Standby," a kind of country rave-up with the sumptuousness of Roxy Music that welcomes being "down for redesign."
Bred in Modesto, an area between Yosemite National Park and the ocean, it's not surprising that nature continues to butt up against urbanity in many of Grandaddy's new songs. "The Group Who Couldn't Say" is one of their best parables for this, detailing the adventures of a prize-winning group who "were the shrewdest unit movers so the boss got them tours of the countryside," where they are rendered speechless before the "perfection of an outdoor day," as "the sprinklers that came on at 3 a.m., sounded like crowds of people asking if you're happy what you're doing."
The idea reappears in the slowly rumbling "The Go in the Go-For-It," where beneath a bed of harmonies Lytle seems to reflect on the band's growing profile, singing, "The talk it got so loud, the songs cut out/That's when I had enough of their talk and stuff/I had to bring it down to more level ground/Where my only company was wind blowing through the leaves." The music soars as Lytle sings, "Guess who lost the Go in the Go-For-It."
Fairchild credits Modesto with being a force in the band's development, saying dejectedly, "There isn't much else to do." Four of the members went to the same high school, and the current incarnation of the band has existed for more than eight years. Given Modesto's limited entertainment options, they've gotten to know each other pretty well. So well, in fact, Fairchild reckons, that "we've begun to take on each other's mannerisms."
While an important crucible for their discontent, the town receives little quarter in Grandaddy's caustic hometown once-over, "Stray Dog and the Chocolate Shake." Lytle slyly notes how the "supervisor guy turns out the lights so the robots have to work in the dark," while outside "there's a carload of kids with cigarettes and beer burning out and doing odd jobs in the park." The travelogue ends with a "high school football coach sitting on the couch with a toothpick in his mouth, and the stray dog won't forget the day he tricked him with a chocolate shake."
"That's definitely us," laughs Fairchild when questioned. "We've always felt like outsiders there. Sort of us against the world. That's a real big inspiration, because it can be a pretty sad, depressing, sort of pathetic place to live."
Not that they always get along together. Familiarity has been known to breed contempt, and at the most recent show in Chicago, opening for Pete Yorn, they began their set with an anarchic little tune called "play whatever you want for about six minutes."
"The anger and frustration that had been mounting reared its head horribly during this and consequently seems to have signaled some kind of defining release. Hopefully it won't have to be played again," Fairchild reported recently on the band's Web site.
Such news is foreboding, given rumors that have circulated in the past few months that this might be the band's last album together. It would be a shame, as Sumday truly is the band's best work to date -- "by a long shot," as Fairchild says. However, if a band has to hang it up, there couldn't be a better way to go out than Sumday, which finds Grandaddy at the height of its powers, fashioning lush, stunning songs that negotiate heartbreak and loneliness, securing peace of mind in the settlement.
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