“What happened to the family cat?” a pair of children repeatedly mispronounce to a soundtrack of mournful piano and rising mechanical noise as the final Grandaddy album opens. Let me try to explain.
Well, kids, the cat’s getting old. She had a good run, but she’s turning 14 this year and she’s probably had to stop and reflect a bit. Back in the ‘90s, she got off to a real promising start, turned a bunch of heads with Under the Western Freeway, and followed through with some ambitious, beautiful work on a little album called The Sophtware Slump. Then, I guess she wanted to polish herself up a bit and present a more unified, focused sound on Sumday, but it didn’t quite work out. Seemed a little too conservative and scaled back compared to her earlier projects. That would give anyone a bit of a pause, I guess. And so now she’s decided it’s time to go. Cats do that, kids. They just recognize when it’s best that they go on their own terms and they slip away, disappear. Just be glad that, unlike the cat I had when I was your age, this one decided to leave us something to remember her by.
And so we get Just Like the Fambly Cat, our going away present from a band that managed to meld electronics and pure, fuzzed-out rock into a distinctly satisfying mix for the last decade and more. Sure, plenty of bands are using keyboards these days, but Jason Lytle and Co. managed to work them in without any reference to the ‘80s, as a gritty lo-fi accompaniment that still stands as relatively unique. The focus today remains on Grandaddy’s buzzy guitar work, giving them a bit of a throwback-to-grunge feel, but the electronic embellishments—seamlessly fitting in and rarely superfluous—continue to set them apart. And old fans may be happy to know that they seem to have backed off from the pop polish of Sumday a bit, for a sound closer to their more stripped-down, more spontaneous earliest work.
All nostalgia aside, though, fans are rarely actually satisfied by a retreat to an older iteration of a band. Now, slotted soundly into the Grandaddy discography, I’m finding myself looking back more kindly on Sumday. It may have been a let down after the power and range displayed on The Sophtware Slump (of course, what wouldn’t have been?), but at least it was a snapshot of a band in motion, perhaps consolidating and allowing themselves some forays into more conventional material, but still trying new things and developing their sound. Fambly Cat just serves to underscore how good Grandaddy has been by rehashing without improving or building.
The faster tracks here, like distorted stormer (and probable first single) “Jeez Louise”, or the album’s catchiest, “Disconnecty”, are still inarguably solid rock songs, but they can’t even approach the compact noise-pop power of “A.M. 180” or “Crystal Lake”. “Rearview Mirror” is a reflective six-minute burner concerning the death of a friend, but with its hazier, more repetitive lyricism still doesn’t manage to be as oddly affecting as “Miner at the Dial-a-View” or “Everything Beautiful Is Far Away”. While I hate to view this album only in light of the past, it’s almost impossible not to. The band seems intent on quoting from it ceaselessly, and by ending their career here, without even a final tour, it makes it difficult not to think back over their complete discography.
Finally, at the end of the journey, Lytle leaves us with a fitting epitaph for his band: Over tragic string swells and piano arpeggios in one of the best compositions on the disc, he sings simply, repeatedly “I’ll never return to Shangri-La”. It’s true. Just like the fambly cat—familiar, comforting, departing—we may have seen the last new material from Grandaddy, and together we’re forced to leave their vibrant career behind us. But Grandaddy took us there—to Shangri-La—once before, and we’ll always have the warm memories.
// Notes from the Road
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