As a wee Yacht Rock-loving lad, I actually learned about the Doobie Brothers’ breakup via the Michael Douglas film Romancing the Stone. Very traumatic. (He also said “shit,” itself a jarring event for a six-year-old.) I was devastated, so enamored was I by the Doobs’ joyful melodies and furry, bearlike countenances — the questionably groomed Minute by Minute cover is forever burned into my memory.
But this latest abrupt breakup might take longer to absorb without Douglas’ soothing voice to cushion the blow. In typical postmodern fashion, it was while snoozily browsing Pitchfork that I learned the terrible news: Grandaddy broke up. Reading the headline prompted from me several audible, dismayed gasps.
I love Grandaddy deeply and terribly; I remain of the dubious opinion that the Modesto band’s 2000 release The Sophtware Slump is the finest rock album ever made. This opinion is not widely shared (probably not by the band itself, for example), but its mysteries and dichotomies still enrapture me. The bright California sunshine clashing with the frigid, Tron-era synths that bathe the band’s purring indie rock in a microwaved ELO glow. Frontman Jason Lytle’s frail, furry voice describing a somber parade of disenchanted astronauts and drunken robots. And above all, the whole Nature vs. Technology thing. Grandaddy’s campfire sentimentality is well documented (it has a tune in a car commercial now, that sing-along I wanna walk up a side of a mountain one), but on Sophtware Slump, various computers and miscellaneous electronics constantly invade. Consider the tune “Broken Household Appliance National Forest”:
Meadows resemble showroom floors
Owls fly out of oven doors
Stream banks are lined with vacuum bags
Flowers reside with filthy rags
A family of deer were happy that
The clearing looked like a laundrymat
If you don’t go for toaster imagery, though, stick with the robots. When we’re all enslaved by Internet-sired mutant ro-beasts twenty years from now, Slump will serve for our masters the same function Joni Mitchell’s Blue serves for us now: the I Do Believe I’ll Have a Good Cry record. “Jed the Humanoid” describes the sad fate of a lab-created robot that, abandoned by its masters, raids the liquor cabinet and dies in an electrocuted heap. A later Slump track, “Jed’s Other Poem (Beautiful Ground)” purports to be a melancholy bit of verse Jed composed before his death.
The amateur, unsolicited video for this tune, apparently created by some Grandaddy fanatics on an old Apple computer, sums this band up splendidly (see it at YouTube.com/watch?v=6nmimuo9dIs). It ends with a long, aching shot of a computer monitor, illuminated by a harsh desk lamp, abandoned and utterly alone. Is it overly fey of me to find this image chilling and profound? Perhaps.
I don’t know why Grandaddy broke up. Ennui, most likely. I can’t be expected to do my job under these conditions. It is enough that I floridly proselytize on their behalf. The band started with a long lo-fi home-taping phase that’s kind of charming and kind of spotty — the comp Concrete Dunes will learn ya, but it’s one of those deals involving an old label wherein the band had no involvement or input (vague threats of physical harm have transpired). So if you’re trying not to offend anyone, maybe stick with 1999’s The Broken Down Comforter Collection, which highlights the band’s splendid taste in song titles (“Kim, You Bore Me to Death,” “Sikh in a Baja VW Bug”). Debut full-length Under the Western Freeway is considered the dudes’ first not entirely half-assed release, with some excellent stranded astronaut alienation and a final track that’s mostly just field-recorded crickets chirping. That shit kills during poker nights.
Buy Sophtware Slump immediately. I’m not gonna take any crap about this. Some folks find the follow-up, 2003’s Sumday, a bit too glossy, with short pop tunes that disregard Grandaddy’s talents for languid, ten-minute prog-pop epics like Slump‘s majestic opener “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot.” But the Nature vs. Technology debate/crisis is well represented by “The Group Who Couldn’t Say,” in which overachieving office drones are set loose in the wild to stomp in puddles and behold wondrous insects — Her drag-and-click had never yielded anything as perfect as a dragonfly.
Late last year came the Excerpts from the Diary of Todd Zilla EP, a bizarre mixture of Andrew WK-like inspirational anthems, atonal hardcore goofs, and anti-chain-store tirades (Fremont residents might relate to this). The band’s final bow comes in May with the evidently posthumous full-length Just Like the Fambly Cat, which is hopefully better. Lately, frontman Lytle has cryptically noted how housecats tend to die (quietly and with dignity) and threatened to move to Montana. Which frankly suits him perfectly. Hopefully he’ll take along a synth or two.
For that, in the end, is Grandaddy’s enduring image and legacy, encapsulated by a photo in the Sophtware Slump booklet depicting a skinny dude in a cowboy hat, cradling a keyboard and staring at the moon. Beholding the splendor of nature while holding an example of the technology that will demystify and probably eventually destroy it. A perfect image for a perfect band.