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."
"There's a constant honing of the craft," he says. "The types of records that we prefer are ones that are more linear in the sense that this song sort of coaxes you into this mood. The segues and bridges should all flow together pretty well. The bridges take you from mood to mood. This time there was a definite eye toward making a really linear record that could be listened to from front to back."
For the most part, Grandaddy's music does flow together pretty well--waxing and waning, pushing and pulling. Two-thirds of Grandaddy's songs are slight, tragic epics, while the rest are made up of electric, cathartic rock. It's a sonic marriage employed by other like-minded bands, including The Flaming Lips, and, yes, Radiohead. Fairchild confronts the inevitable comparisons head-on.
"We have a constant eye toward development," he begins. "There are only so many bands out there that are trying to make rich, orchestrated music, and once you throw in a sensitivity toward relationships with humans, the development and the comparison gets clearer. But we're not trying to become the new Radiohead," Fairchild concludes emphatically.
The Sophtware Slump might not be OK Computer, but it's nearly as haunting musically and lyrically. The album's theme is the creation and degeneration of "Jed the Humanoid." As the songs reveal, Jed, or Jeddy 3 as he's first known, is assembled in the kitchen from "failed clones and odd parts." Jed's inventors delight in his ability to run, walk, sing, think, and talk. Eventually Jed gets into the booze and he "fizzled and popped, he rattled and knocked, and finally he just stopped." Like a nightmare of a nursery rhyme, Lytle makes keen commentary with tongue still firmly in cheek. The bearded songwriter is a darker, postmodern, musical version of Dr. Seuss. Rather than lapsing into lengthy diatribe about Jed's significance in relation to modern man, both Lytle and Fairchild simply play the song off as being about how "alcohol and machinery don't mix too well." Right.
Grandaddy's smugness isn't limited to interviews, either. Like an impudent child testing the boundaries with a stern parent, the band sent V2 a phony tape of the new album just to "shake things up." Further capitalizing on their sense of humor, the band would broadcast some of the phony songs after performances in Europe.
"The first three songs were sort of listenable," says Fairchild. "They kind of have a melody and little story in the lyrics and deal with robots--which are touchstones of what they expect out of us. Needless to say, V2 was not pleased, and audiences were simply perplexed.
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The real Sophtware Slump, however, is a fully developed, rich drama of an album. The disc pushes off with the tranquil, sweet-sounding "He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot." With erratic bleeps and foreboding, chorale-like strings, the song ebbs and flows beautifully, recalling both Radiohead's "Karma Police" and "Paranoid Android." Reaching the climax and the refrain, Lytle whines, "Did you love this world and this world not love you?" to the "2000 Man" who lost his maps and plans. Later, the narrator encourages 2000 Man not to give in, as the song's trebly melody finally bursts into a rumbling piano dirge.
Though Fairchild bristles at the word "cinematic," that's exactly what this album is; the bright, up-tempo songs are the action sequences, while the lulling, pensive songs are the dramatic dialogue scenes.
But, as with almost everything that surrounds Grandaddy, it's not quite so simple. The beauty of the lively-sounding songs is that they're still dark lyrically. "The Crystal Lake"--a bouncy pop song--illustrates the point with its tale of an "area where trees are fake, and dogs are dead with broken hearts." "Broken Household Appliance National Forest" describes meadows polluted with microwaves, air conditioners, and vacuum bags. The animals inhabit the land, with owls flying out of oven doors and frogs housing in refrigerators. The song is alternately peaceful and jaunty, illustrating the contrast of "flowers that reside with filthy rags." "Jed's Other Poem (Beautiful Ground)" has a weaving organ melody and details Jed's demise "lower than ground, beautiful ground." Lytle seems to find beauty in the sadness and pathetic end of all his characters. The radiance of his music is in the haunting refrains, the sparse odd notes, the flourishes under layers of fuzz and distortion that become the highlights of the songs.
Despite all evidence to the contrary--the CD artwork, which the band created, displays fragmented Macintosh keyboards filled with dirt and rubble--Fairchild insists that Grandaddy's ethic is not anti-technology, but a constant questioning of how necessary anything is. The necessity of the Rancho Seco power plant didn't last. Let's hope Grandaddy's music does.