I vividly remember the first time I heard Grandaddy.
I was working part-time at a music store called Bull Moose in Portland, to supplement my meager magazine salary. (Yes, it’s true, editors for music rags don’t actually make a lot of money – I was the highest paid employee they had, and I needed a second job…) One of my co-workers was a guy named Chad Verrill, a man with amazing artistic ability (go here) and impeccable musical taste. I learned a lot from Chad during my short time there.
Anyway, so it’s a fairly busy day in the store, full of customers and employees. I’m bustling about, doing whatever it was I’m doing – probably one of those infernal dot lists, the Bull Moose method of restocking – and suddenly this song starts playing. Softly, at first, but then cascading in an ever-swelling build of graceful beauty.
I should mention that there’s a part of my brain that is always focused on what music is playing in the background wherever I am, even if I just acknowledge it as sonic wallpaper, but that part very occasionally hears something that makes it smack the rest of my brain to attention. And that’s what happened here – I stopped what I was doing and listened as the song washed over me. The final stretch, the playout of this eight-minute excursion into some strange galaxy, lifted me nearly off the ground. I had to find out who this was.
Turns out, it was Chad’s turn with the CD player, and he’d chosen Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump. And the song was the epic opener “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot,” a masterpiece that still takes me somewhere else.
Grandaddy is a band from Modesto, California, led by a guy named Jason Lytle. They play… well, it’s difficult to describe exactly what it is they play. Their sound has elements of indie rock, especially Lytle’s high-pitched voice and penchant for repeated quarter notes, but also of prog rock and Paul McCartney-esque pop. Their best stuff is simple in structure yet covered in layers of lo-fi orchestration. They are unfairly compared to the Flaming Lips all the time, but I think of them more as a garage version of Pink Floyd without the bombast. Even that isn’t totally accurate – there are moments of Sonic Youth and Genesis and half a dozen other bands in their sound as well.
The only real way to describe them is the one I started with – they’re a band from Modesto, California. Or, I should say, they were a band from Modesto, because Grandaddy is officially no more.
But don’t be sad. They left us a pair of fantastic parting gifts, a far more generous gesture than we get from most bands who call it quits. First out was last year’s EP Excerpts From the Diary of Todd Zilla, a seven-song continuation of the sound they perfected on 2003’s Sumday. “Pull the Curtains” remains one of their coolest songs, all crunchy guitars, delightfully cheesy keyboards, and sunny optimism, and the concluding piano number “Goodbye?” is drenched with regret.
And then there’s parting gift number two. Upon its release, Lytle claimed that the Todd Zilla tracks were the b-sides, the songs the band threw together on the side while crafting their final album. They were the eight-track songs, he said, whereas the album would make use of the full studio. And by God, he’s right – Grandaddy’s final album, out this week, is a stunning sonic wonder, the best sounding record the band has made. It also contains some of Lytle’s best songs, and is his most complete and cohesive statement. It’s the Grandaddy album to end all Grandaddy albums.
It’s called Just Like the Fambly Cat because, in Lytle’s words, when the family cat dies, he doesn’t make a big deal of it, he just finds a corner and curls up. And that’s exactly what Grandaddy has done here – they’ve made a final album that summarizes everything that was ever great about them, but wrapped it in a sweet, graceful balm of a sound, full and rich, yet soothing, as if it’s wiping away its own tears and offering a reassuring hug. The songs are mostly acoustic and sweet, with some of the most emotional, spacey orchestrations you’ll ever hear. It’s a beautiful thing.
Grandaddy’s main theme has always been mechanical breakdown, from “Jed the Humanoid” to “I’m on Standby” and beyond, so the organic metaphor, crystallized in the opening “What Happened,” is striking. This album is not about rusting and falling into disrepair, it’s about dying. The burst of screaming guitars on “Jeez Louise,” a near-monolith of a song, belies the tone of the record – almost immediately we’re into “Summer… It’s Gone,” the first of many autumn laments.
The album takes off with “Rear View Mirror,” a song about looking forward instead of backward, but just listen to the slowly unfolding melody and the building backdrop, blooming over a full six minutes. This is what indie rock can be, massive and ambitious without sacrificing simplicity or emotion. It’s terrific, and if this song doesn’t make you miss this band already, then the rest of the album will. Dig the eminently hummable instrumental “Skateboarding Saves Me Twice,” or the sky-high chorus of “Where I’m Anymore,” or the floating, ethereal “Guide Down Denied” – it’s a sad record, no doubt, but the sheer sound of it is almost joyous.
The only misstep here is the brief punk freakout “50%,” in which Lytle sets a goal: half as many words in 2006. Thematically, it works, but sonically, it just breaks up the sublime final half of the album, a transgression only ameliorated by the fact that it’s a minute long. The final stretch really begins with “Elevate Myself,” the most danceable thing here, its blipping beat and wondrous orchestration masking the self-loathing beneath: “And maybe for a little, get to where I find it really hard to hate myself…”
The last Grandaddy songs are about disconnection – our guide has decided to take his own advice, elevate himself, and be on his way. The printed lyrics to “Campershell Dreams,” which pivots on the line “You don’t have to be alone anymore,” come with an instruction to “repeat again so it sinks in,” and the stratospheric strummed acoustics help bring it home. “Disconnecty,” Grandaddy’s last great pop song, is about deciding whether to fly alone, and the near-lullaby conclusion, ironically titled “This is How it Always Starts,” describes the aftermath in darker tones – “Nothing great, nothing good, nothing works, and it should…”
And my God, the finale of that song is beautiful, an ocean of vocals crashing onto a shore of keyboards and drums and finally collapsing into a lovely ambient fade, like a ship disappearing over the horizon. It’s wonderful and fitting, and the untitled track that follows it is almost like closing credits music, Lytle repeating “I’ll never return to Shangri-La” over sad pianos and strings. Grandaddy have chosen to go out with their finest work, a movie for the ears. It’s not perfect – nothing they did ever was, but their ramshackle charm was always a big part of the attraction. And yet, it is as close to perfection as I could have hoped.
I’m not sure Lytle would be comfortable with grand pronouncements about his band, so I won’t make any more. Just Like the Fambly Cat is equal parts silly and sad anyway – just check “The Animal World,” or the lyrics to the final tune. And hell, no one died, no one’s sick, there’s really nothing permanent about this. Still, there is a sense of finality to Fambly Cat that is impossible to ignore, and speaking for myself, I will miss this band. Lytle has said he doesn’t want this to be a big deal, so I won’t make it one, but I wanted to thank him for years of great music, and for leaving us with his best work. Hopefully there’s much more on the horizon, but if this is it from Jason Lytle, I’ll still be happy and grateful.
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Did we really need a two-hour, 28-song album from the Red Hot Chili Peppers? Really?
Whether we need it or not, here it is – Stadium Arcadium, the most ambitious album of this Cali band’s career. Granted, there isn’t a lot of competition, but word is that Arcadium was scaled down from the three-hour extravaganza the band wanted to release. The cylinders were firing this time, they said, and the creative juices flowing like never before.
Well, let’s just say that if you like the direction the Peppers have been heading in since Californication, then you’ll love this. Stadium Arcadium is the band’s final acceptance of their mature adult contemporary leanings. Every second of this thing is glossed up and spit-shined, courtesy of producer Rick Rubin, who ordinarily traffics in much rawer sounds. It’s one radio-ready pop tune after another, with well-crafted choruses and nicely layered backing vocals and punchy guitar sounds and Anthony Keidis singing almost entirely on-key.
And it’s so boring.
There’s no sense of adventure to anything here, despite the implied promise of the double album – this is just two half-decent Chili Peppers records in one package. Everything is sanitized for your protection – there’s nothing here that your local “alternative” radio station wouldn’t play. Even sorta-funky numbers like “21st Century” and the unfortunately titled “Hump de Bump” play it safe, and the album is practically drowned in mid-tempo numbers like the title song and “Snow” and “She Looks to Me” and “Especially in Michigan” and on and on.
This album is also uniquely built for the iPod generation. It may sport the form of the classic double record, but these songs would work in any order. Load them into your iPod Shuffle, stick it on random and you’ll get the same experience, more or less. There’s no reason that “Dani California” (a real departure in subject matter for the band…) opens disc one, or that “Hey” closes it. It’s almost like they sequenced it by writing each song title down on a plastic ball and then putting them through that vacuum machine you see on the televised lottery drawings. It’s that random.
And none of it is bad, exactly, just unexciting. One thing and one thing only saves Stadium Arcadium from being unbearable, and his name is John Frusciante. Coming off a year in which he released six solo albums, Frusciante still finds enough variety of tone to sustain 28 tracks, and his solos are, as always, fun little rides. He’s the Jimmy Page of this band, but as even Page learned by the end, he can’t carry the thing by himself.
Much as I like double albums – and if there’s one way to get me into your band, it’s to release a double album, because ambition always scores points with me – I think the next Chili Peppers record should be 35 minutes long, and recorded live with cheap microphones in a dingy basement. This band needs an infusion of energy, stat, because the polished soft-rock that fills most of Stadium Arcadium is like fizzy water, tickling a little but leaving no aftertaste at all.
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Speaking of bands that should make shorter albums, there’s Tool.
It takes five years each time for Tool to return with something new, and each time, that something new is more than an hour long and packaged in an art object of some sort. 1996’s Aenima came in a special case that animated the artwork if you tilted the package back and forth. It was 76 minutes long. Then came Lateralus in 2001, dressed up in see-through layers of acetate that produced a 3-D effect. That one, a definite step forward, was also 76 minutes long.
But now I think they’ve stepped over the edge. The fourth Tool album is called 10,000 Days, and it comes in one of the most annoying and ridiculous packages I have ever seen. It’s wider and heavier than a standard digipak, and over the front cover is a half-flap that contains two lenticular lenses. And the point, I guess, is to set up the package like an eye chart, and view it through the lenses, so that the images coalesce into one 3-D picture. It’s neat, once, but when the novelty wears off, you’re left with a stupid-looking case you can’t rack, you can’t stack, and which makes the thing you actually bought – the CD – really difficult to access.
But that’s okay, because 10,000 Days isn’t an album you’ll be reaching for very often anyway. It is, again, 76 minutes long – the title doesn’t refer to the record’s duration, though at times you’ll think it does. No, it refers to the amount of time lead singer Maynard James Keenan’s mother spent paralyzed, between her stroke and her death. It’s a powerfully emotional theme, explored in a 17-minute epic called “Wings for Marie,” that is probably the finest piece of deeply-felt ambience Tool has yet made. Its second part, called “10,000 Days,” is more than 10 minutes of rain-soaked atmosphere that’s mesmerizing.
Other good things – the first two tracks, “Vicarious” and “Jambi,” are terrific examples of the minimalist prog-metal Tool does so well. There is hardly ever anything but bass, drums and guitar on these songs, and they stay pretty close to the root note at all times, but the band has perfected this grounded style into something downright exploratory. No choruses, no hooks, no ins for anyone who doesn’t appreciate musical theory, and yet it’s still captivating stuff. The penultimate track, “Right in Two,” is similarly great, exploding into riff-heavy catharsis after a lengthy intro.
But that’s it. And that’s roughly half of this long, long trip. A surprising amount of filler jams up the remaining 40 or so minutes, from the chanting of “Lipan Conjuring” to the uselessly long “Rosetta Stoned” to the concluding five minutes of electronic noise, oddly given its own title (“Viginti Tres”) as if it were an actual song. (They’ve done this before, but never taken up this much disc space with their experiments in formlessness.) There are really only seven songs on this thing, and three of them are well below par. But man, are they long.
And that’s the thing with Tool – it’s as if they feel like they can’t go back to a shorter album, like it wouldn’t be prog enough or something. Seriously, guys, if it took you five years to come up with 40 minutes of good material, then that’s what you’ve got. Ignoring the obvious question of why you’re still trying to get blood from this particular stone, if you have 40 minutes of good stuff, make a 40-minute album. I would have bought and loved one that included the first four tracks and “Right in Two” and that’s it, and I think that running order flows pretty well, myself. Strong opener, beautiful ambient epic in the middle, strong closer, no five minutes of worthless noise clogging up the finale. It’s a winner.
Granted, you wouldn’t be out of line for expecting more from a band like Tool after five years. Keenan has a voice like no other metal singer’s, strong and even and melodic, and the interplay between the three instrumentalists, when it’s on, is breathtaking. No one sounds quite like Tool, which is why it’s disappointing to hear them flounder about here. Half this album should have gone straight in the bin, but the good half is evidence enough that Tool has created its own unique sound, and they can pull it off like no other band. Many try, but there’s only one Tool, and when they put out something as haphazard as 10,000 Days, it’s like when the smartest kid in class brings home a D-. It’s not that they can’t do it, it’s that they’re not trying.
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And then there’s the Elms, whose second album, Truth, Soul, Rock ‘n’ Roll, nearly made my top 10 list in 2002. There was an exuberance to that album, a celebration of melody, that’s all but missing from its follow-up, the just-released The Chess Hotel. And I’m not sure what happened.
The last time I encountered something like this, the band was Phantom Planet, and they’d followed up their winning sophomore album The Guest with a punky, noisy self-titled thing that couldn’t have strayed further from the reasons I liked them. I grew to enjoy that album, as I think I will grow to enjoy The Chess Hotel, but my heart lies with the melodies, and in both cases, the earlier albums just have better ones.
The Elms, a four-piece from Seymour, Indiana (home of John Mellencamp), are led by Owen Thomas, who writes all the songs, plays guitar and sings. And this time, instead of taking from British pop like the Beatles and the Knack, he’s gone for American rock – the guitars are on 11, the riffs are heavy and thudding, the songs are speedy little numbers that concentrate on knocking you flat more than sticking in your head.
Opener “I Am the World” is everything that’s right and wrong with it – it’s propulsive, with a chanted verse over nothing but the pounding drums, and a guitar riff that’s ripped right from the Keith Richards songbook. It’s good stuff, if you dig ‘70s rock, and the two songs that follow are similarly kick-ass. But by the time you hit “She’s Cold,” at track six, you’ll realize that none of these songs are very memorable. And that’s something you couldn’t say about the Elms before.
The second half is better, including the epic “The Towers and the Trains” and the finest piece of melody Owen Thomas wrote this time out, “Black Peach.” In fact, none of The Chess Hotel is bad – it does its job well, and it’s a concise and well-made rock record. But I wanted more than that, I suppose. I wanted songs I could sing along with, tunes I could hum, sweet melodies and harmonies, and it’s not Thomas’ fault that he didn’t write those this time, because he obviously wasn’t trying to. But his shift in focus has moved the Elms from a band that I love to a band that I like, and even that matter of degrees is unfortunate.
This goes right back to the theme of last week’s column, though – why shouldn’t the Elms stretch out and try something new? Why should I penalize them for that? I shouldn’t, but I can only report on my own reactions to music, and The Chess Hotel made me want to go dig out Truth, Soul more than it made me want to press play again. Some will (and have) celebrate the newfound ballsiness of the band’s sound, the sheer roadhouse bar band energy that’s all over this thing, and while I appreciate it, I don’t respond to it.
And in the end, as I have always maintained, a critic is no good to you unless you agree with him. A different critic would have praised this to the skies, but this one likes different things than this admittedly very good album is offering. Fans of bluesy rock and stomping good times are encouraged to check this band out, but if you have been reading this column for a while, and you find you agree with me more often than not, then I’d recommend starting with Truth, Soul, Rock ‘n’ Roll. Call it a prejudice if you like, but it’s what I’m hoping the next Elms album sounds more like.
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A note before I go: Another song from Keane’s upcoming Under the Iron Sea has hit the web, this time in the form of an internet-only video directed by Irvine Welsh, writer of Trainspotting. It’s for the album’s opening track, “Atlantic,” and calling it a departure for Keane would be like calling Tom Cruise a little bit nuts. It’s a glorious six minutes, a moving and building track that is one part Marillion, one part Rufus Wainwright, but somehow all parts neither one. If this is the tone of the album, as dynamic first single “Is It Any Wonder” also suggested, then I am jumping out of my skin to hear the whole thing.
Check it out here, but I’d recommend listening without the video.
Next week, Paul Simon.
See you in line Tuesday morning.