There are not too many things surviving from my teenage years which I can look back on and not wince in some degree of embarrassment (just as I’m sure I’ll look back on this piece of writing and wince – I do have some degree of self-awareness). But one thing that has stood the test of my maturing sensibility is the music of Grandaddy, which sounds as good now as it ever did. Having split up in 2006 after the release of their fourth album Just Like the Fambly Cat, a long hiatus broken only by a few reunion concerts in 2012 means that the wait for new music from the group has been long and arduous. In these circumstances it can be easy to get over-excited about the new music and build it up a little too much, only to have set yourself up for disappoint in listening. Not to mention the difficulty of bands successful in days yonder, coming back with new stuff and it being able to hold up to the standard of the excellent back catalogue of songs. But Grandaddy’s Last Place is no such disappoint, in fact it’s probably the best sounding record they have ever created.
In the run up to the release they’d put out 3 singles, well chosen as they’re a good representation of the kind of range of songs that Grandaddy do best. ‘Way We Won’t’ came first, and it is also track 1 on the album. It’s a great start, an almost anthemic sounding song with the quintessential guitar chugging on every beat and a chorus melody played through a distorted keyboard, redolent of the song ‘am 180’ which was a success for them in the early 2000s. Next came, ‘Evermore’ a mournful synth-lead piece fusing the imagery of trees and aeroplanes, which contributes to a growing oeuvre of tracks written about air travel, something of a niche in the songwriting of Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle. The final aperitif was ‘A Lost Machine’, a long mock-epic ballad, building from solo piano to a wash of drum crashes, guitar and an orchestra of electronics – it’s fabulous, and full of pathos.
Grandaddy’s music had a real exoticism for me
It’s difficult to articulate why exactly music is pleasing to us, even more so if you’re talking retrospectively about how the music of Grandaddy resonated with the 14 year-old me, but I’ll give it a try. I think there was a fair bit of escapism going on, not to say that my teenage life was something that needed escaping from. It wasn’t traumatic or anything. In fact it was a walk in the park, but a walk in the same park every day, to the point were to be honest, though it wasn’t a bad park, it would have been nice to walk somewhere else. Grandaddy’s music had a real exoticism for me, deriving partly from the unique Californian drawl of Lytle. Though it spoke the same language as me, you could tell that that voice could only have ever come from a completely different and unknowable way of life. This was complimented by the lyrics. They spoke of technological progress and insecurity. It drew parallels between mechanical and bucolic rural decay, but also talked of the incongruity of the two existing. The beloved landscape Western USA against the culture of consumption and waste, captured tellingly in the song title ‘Broken Household Appliance National Forest’ and the title of their most critically acclaimed album to date The Sophtware Slump. Lytle maintains that he never condoned rejecting technology, as is obvious for anyone who hears how he makes his music, more for him the natural world would always be more important and let’s be honest it is in more need of championing.
There’s also the sonic quality of the music. As a year 9 secondary school pupil the sounds baffled me, and to this day they still do. At their best Grandaddy sound full and textured, with Aaron Burtch’s drumming, Kevin Garcia’s bass, Jim Fairchild’s guitar, Tim Dryden’s keyboard and Jason Lytle’s voice. It’s a totally immersing dense sound, a real wall capable of evoking natural and pastoral landscapes with electronic instruments. Layered with innumerable parts to create one singular and impressive whole, like an impressionist canvas. Songs like ‘Jed the 4th’ and ‘A Lost Machine’ on Last Place really capture this.
To say that Grandaddy had been in the wilderness in the years since their split wouldn’t be totally accurate (though I’m sure some of them would have liked to have been). Lytle himself released two solo albums and Jim Fairchild has been playing with Modest Mouse. By some accounts the split in 2006 sounded a little acrimonious, with differences in opinion as to what direction the band should be headed and to just how successful they could be. But more than that it was just too much for too long and Lytle felt he was “burned out”. It feels like in order to rekindle the magic of Grandaddy they had to reconstruct the relationship they had right at the start, when they were just friends in a band in Modesto, CA. The evidence of the album seems to indicate that time has been successfully healing wounds, and the result is a cohesive sound, that was able to draw inspiration from all corners of Grandaddy’s musical palette. There are frequent reminiscences of sounds from Grandaddy’s past epochs. ‘Jed the 4th’ wouldn’t be out of place on The Sophtware Slump, ‘Way We Won’t’ could have been on Under the Western Freeway and ‘Check Injin’ could easily find a home on one of the early EPs.
this ALBUM IS THE CLOSEST POSSIBLE AUDIO Embodiment OF WHAT THEY WANTED IT TO SOUND LIKE.
For some bands, the repetition of sounds can be their downfall, and I’m not saying that Grandaddy haven’t changed at all. Just that they’ve evolved in subtle ways. They’re older, sure. But they still play the instruments in the same way, and have a similar musical sensibility. I think the biggest progress is the sonic quality and the production of the album. Lytle has been making music for a long time now and his style has nearly always been in his words “big and produced”. I think this album is the closest possible audio embodiment of what they wanted it to sound like. And the result is gorgeous.
But my favourite thing about the album is that it totally works as one piece of work. You can listen from start to finish and the ebbs and flows of tempo and sonority are enough to keep you going, sure the songs are great, but they add together to make a whole that is even better than the sum of its parts. I recommend putting an afternoon aside and listening to the whole thing.