By Jim Schutze
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Ninety miles or so east of San Francisco, the jarring sight of twin smokestacks erupts from the Northern California scenery, interrupting the placid backdrop of vineyards, blue sky, and the Sierra Nevada mountains. The imposing concrete pillars are remnants of the now-defunct nuclear power plant in Rancho Seco, a man-made monument slowly being absorbed by the quiet countryside it invaded. A graveyard for one of the many American dreams this country has woken up from in the past 50 years, the site is eerie, made even more bizarre by the fact that this former plant now boasts a park and camping grounds. Almost more of a running Simpsons gag than a reality, this powered-down power plant is a metaphor for progress and efficiency at the cost of health and nature.
A few miles from the former plant is a small town called Modesto, home of the five members of Grandaddy. With its recent V2 Records release, The Sophtware Slump, Grandaddy is already being called the "new American Radiohead," an honor every bit as clumsy as it sounds. Still, it's not hard to see the parallel. Grandaddy also sings about robots and has a killer melodic sense and an affinity for tragic, sweeping epics. In fact, the irony of a power plant-turned-recreational park is something one might expect to hear about in the next Grandaddy song. Much press attention has been given to the fact that this enigmatic group producing this reflective, sophisticated music hails from Modesto. Of course, with a population of more than 180,000--and counting--Modesto ain't exactly the Beverly Hillbillies' back yard. But obviously, it lacks the metropolitan flair of San Francisco.
Grandaddy, however, is mostly satisfied living in Modesto. The band formed in 1992 with Jason Lytle at the helm, writing and recording from his makeshift home studio. All five members of Grandaddy--Lytle, bassist Kevin Garcia, drummer Aaron Burtch, keyboardist Tim Dryden, and guitarist Jim Fairchild--were raised in Modesto. Yet Fairchild, low-key and articulate, reveals that staying in Modesto "gets less likely all the time."
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"Modesto is losing some of its luster," Fairchild says from his home there. "I think that as people start to move in here all the time from San Jose and San Francisco, you're able to see that influence more and more. People can live wherever they want to live--I'm not going to begrudge anyone those opportunities. But even though this place has never really had like a remarkable identity, it used to possess more of an identity than it does now. It's suffering from the same growing pains as anywhere else, from commercialization and homogenization."
But would Grandaddy possess the same bewitching, thoughtful charm had its members not weathered the Modesto experience? Would Lytle still write about the clash of mud and metal, nature and commerce? Fairchild isn't sure how much their environment has influenced Lytle's songwriting and the band's music. He's not even sure he'd want to know.
"I think it's completely intrinsic," he says with a typically unassuming yet meditative manner. "This environment probably influences us in ways that none of us are 100 percent aware of. If you come from places like this and have that work ethic instilled in you and the need for simplicity and appreciation for the outdoors, I don't think there's any way you could escape being influenced by that. It crops up in music lyrically, thematically, and sonically in ways I don't even want to be completely aware of. I think sometimes when you can put your finger on whatever it is that people perceive as magic, you do yourself a disservice. I think there's got to be some ethereal qualities to it that nobody's really aware of."
These "ethereal qualities" were manifest even on Grandaddy's previous LP, the first for V2, Under the Western Freeway. The first track, "Nonphenomenal Lineage," transmits the band's originality with its warbly guitar, droning synth, and Lytle's wistful, high voice not quite hitting the notes. The song details the routine dismissal of someone "who came up rather short of the average sort" compared with the "gifted hands" that receive "the chance to touch down on fortune." Commentary on downsizing? A metaphor for human disposability? Lytle's delicate voice barely pierces the propulsive backbeat and gentle guitar melody, until the album launches into the distorted, Weezer-like "A.M. 180."
Fairchild underestimates the grandeur of Western Freeway, calling it jagged and nonlinear. Gems like "Everything Beautiful Is Far Away," with its intriguing narrative of a smoking cave-dweller who sees swans on "shores of a pale white lake," reveal this album's value even next to the stellar Sophtware Slump. As in many Grandaddy songs, Lytle muses on alienation and estrangement in a world of technological advancement at the cost of humanity. "Go Progress Chrome" reveals the singer's preference for "how it's always been" in view of those who want to "paint the moon today some brand-new future color." Lytle's lyrics may seem paranoid, but they're not so far-fetched. New Scientist magazine reported that two advertising executives in London are working on a plan to use reflected sunlight to project advertisements onto the surface of the moon.
Fairchild is more forgiving of the band's efforts on Sophtware Slump. Comparing it to Western Freeway, Fairchild says that the band has "managed to streamline some stuff we wanted to get across."