Grandaddy were one of those bands who struggled to catch a break. They had all the talent in the world, great tunes, a fine songwriter in Jason Lytle and had a lot more to offer than your average five piece rock band peddling their wares at the turn of the millennium.
Sound-wise they were not a million miles away from what I personally refer to the as Cosmic Americana Scene of the late 90s / early 2000’s (i.e. the likes of Mercury Rev, The Flaming Lips and Sparklehorse), however they never seemed to enjoy the level of commercial success that many felt that they deserved.
A buyers guide to Grandaddy is a tricky proposition, as they self-released so many of the early albums and EPs on cassettes, much of which has never enjoyed wide-spread release and as such, I’ve never heard. Instead this article will concentrate on the band’s four commercially available albums, as well as a select few other releases.
Grandaddy initially gained attention here in the UK with what was their international debut, Under the Western Freeway, which captures them at a point in their career, where they were still finding their feet as a musical unit and perhaps didn’t have the confidence that they would later display. As a result the album sounds like a collection of EP tracks rather than a fully realised album and it lacks a certain dynamic flow to pull the whole album together to be a genuinely satisfying whole. Having said that, there are some genuinely brilliant tracks in the likes of “Summer Here Kids” and Everything is Beautiful”. Best of all though is “A.M. 180”, the album’s stand out tune, a live favourite and effectively Grandaddy’s signature tune at this point in their career.
Grandaddy’s next album length release was actually a compilation of some of the hard to find self-released album and EP tracks that pre-dated the Under the Western Freeway sessions. Despite it giving new fans an opportunity to hear the early evolution of the band, I don’t consider it a vital release, as it’s more like a collection of rough sketches (indeed, it’s the only collection of Grandaddy tunes even more lo-fi than Under the Western Freeway), rather than the finished article. It’s a nice thing to have for the curious, but it’s really only bait for the completist to go insane trying to track down the rest of their self-released material.
Their next full album would find Grandaddy striking creative gold. With both Mercury Rev and The flaming Lips having released the best albums in their respective careers in the previous two years, Grandaddy answered with The Sophtware Slump, the album where they genuinely established themselves as one of the greatest bands of the era. From the epic opener “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s The Pilot”, the album states its case to be classed as one of the greats, by the time you’ve heard “Hewlett’s Daughter”, the heartbreaking “Underneath The Weeping Willow” and “Broken Household Appliance National Forest”, it’s obvious that it’s one of the landmark albums of the decade. It rocks, it mopes, it has songs about suicidal androids drinking themselves to death. It is simply a work of genius.
Sadly it never made the commercial impact it deserved to, despite favourable reviews and in “The Crystal Lake” a strong single with obvious commercial appeal (any video that includes a bloke dancing around in a bear costume automatically qualifies as utterly brilliant in my eyes). In retrospect it is Grandaddy’s best album, towering over the others as a more human and coherent answer to the challenge issued by Radiohead via OK Computer three years previously. It even wishes us luck before it departs.
After the creative victory that was The Sophtware Slump, Grandaddy made a concerted effort to become more accessible. The results of this were to be found in the run time of Sumday, the closest Grandaddy ever got to a ‘pop’ album. Out went the extended song suites, the lo-fi tendencies are kept on a tighter leash and the songs come with tailor-made catchy choruses. To ensure that it’s still recognisable as a Grandaddy album, the tightness and focus are still obvious, as is the opinion that the human race is too dependable on technology.
Although it lacked the the lasting emotional impact of The Sophtware Slump, Sumday was a strong album and the one that should have broken Grandaddy as a commercially viable force. Sadly, hardly anyone heard the singles released from the album and their record label made a negligible effort to promote it.
This lack of success seemed to chasten Grandaddy a little at this point in their careers and when they suddenly appeared again to present Excerpts From The Diary Of Todd Zilla, a mini-album which was musically much simpler and less reliant on synth sounds than their previous releases. This was a guitar album, a slightly odd one, but it was a guitar album. There are loud guitars on Excerpts From The Diary Of Todd Zilla, but not huge amounts, more often than not they are steadily strummed or buzzing away applying layers of sound to a song like “Cinderland”. Where they do press the volume button it’s great stuff, like the opener “Pull The Curtains”, on a tune like “Florida” the lyrics aren’t up to the scratch, but it sounds like Grandaddy were just enjoying the thrash around.
Inevitably though, it seemed that Grandaddy’s lack of tangible commercial success had started to grind them down, led to inevitable in-fighting and ultimately the disillusion of the band. Even if Grandaddy hadn’t announced their imminent split previous to Just Like The Fambly Cat, it wouldn’t have taken a genius to figure out that the album was a fond farewell to the small but loyal fanbase that adored Grandaddy. In reality it wasn’t so much a Grandaddy album, as Lytle’s first solo album, with assistance from drummer Aaron Burtch.
Just about every song on Just Like The Fambly Cat paints a picture of missed chances, the struggle in the face of adversity, of the desire to look back, but the knowledge that to survive you need to keep moving on. While it doesn’t boast tunes as immediate as some of their most accessible work, it’s certainly a grower and after a handful of listens it starts to establish itself in your subconscious. Musically it’s a blend of everything great about Grandaddy’s three previous full length albums, while retaining its own identity. Songs like “Jeez Louise” and “50%” show that Lytle could still do crunchy guitar rock when he wanted, but on the whole, Just Like The Fambly Cat is a downbeat album.
There have been no post-split compilations trying to cash in on Grandaddy’s legacy and since they went their separate ways in 2006, there has been little in the way of articles mourning their passing.
Jason Lytle has since released a pair of solo albums that sound not a million miles away from Grandaddy, which is inevitable given that the band’s final album was effectively a solo effort. These albums have kept the band’s small fanbase relatively content, but Lytle rarely tours and the albums have received minimal publicity, so their commercial impact has been limited.
The most visible member of the band other than Lytle has been guitar player Jim Fairchild, who has recorded a number of albums under the name All Smiles, has since joined Modest Mouse, and along with other former Grandaddy members, has contributed to the work of Admiral Radley.
Since 2012 Grandaddy has occasionally reformed to perform festivals, though there seems to be mixed messages on whether Lytle wants to record new material with the band, or just continue releasing solo albums. Perhaps a compromise of him releasing solo albums and Grandaddy playing live as his backing band could be a way forward, but I guess that all depends on the egos of the rest of the band. Then again, Grandaddy were always a band that seemed more human and in tune with the realities of life than most rock stars, so perhaps some mild emotional drama is quite fitting.