On this record, Grandaddy and Earlimart members sound like they're still feeling out their new project, which is too bad, because by the end of the record, they seem to have hit their stride.
The fact that Grandaddy members Jason Lytle and Aaron Burch have teamed with Earlimart's Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray to make Admiral Radley isn't terribly surprising. For one thing, the bands have known each other for years, and toured and collaborated together before. Then, of course, there's the way the two bands compliment each other sonically, with Grandaddy's hushed yet paranoid fuzz melding well with the gentle, lilting smoke of Earlimart's sound.
Much of I Heart California finds its place in the middle ground between those two sounds. The title track starts the album off with a bouncy combination of clean piano and bright drums coated in both the light bed of distortion and the nasal rasp of Lytle's vocals. It's a promising start to the record, one that feels a good deal lighter than Lytle's solo album from last year, and finds him in a good humored, joking mood, talking about how "drugs fall out of diaper bags as Midwesteners stare". And while the song also has some less-inspired references to California -- they drop in "fake tits" and "citrus" -- overall it's a smart, tongue-in-cheek pop song.
But it isn't until the last third of the record that the players really settle in. Things get a little darker here, but the mix of elements is working a little better. These songs stretch out and grow, as Espinoza's swaying mood dulls the edge of Lytle's overcast fuzz, and together they create an expansive atmosphere. "G N D N" could be boilerplate Grandaddy, but instead of coiling in on itself, it melts at the edges and spreads into something fundamentally gentler than we usually get from Lytle. "Chingas in the West" is Espinoza's finest contribution the record, a tight pop-rock song with just enough of a ragged edge to keep it from feeling too controlled. Guitars glide across the song, but catch at just the right moments, amping up the tension in an otherwise pleasant tune. Closer "I Left U Cuz I Left U" is a haunting, dessicated waltz that subtly unravels as it goes, leaving us awash in wandering synths and keys as the record fades to a close.
It's an arresting end, and a much-needed one, since it almost makes us forget much of the middle of the record. The bulk of the body of I Heart California sounds like the band is trying to find their footing. Sometimes, as on the lilting "Ghosts of Syllables", they aren't all that far off. But much of it feels too controlled, too tentative. Lytle and Espinoza both usually expand in their own way, but through much of the middle of the record they seem to counteract each other, so everything is too reigned in. It's most apparent when they try to amp up the noise, as on tracks like "Sunburn Kids", where Lytle somehow sounds tamer in the churning, synthesized power-pop, or "I'm All Fucked on Beer", which is noisy but far too contained to be believed.
There's certainly enough good in I Heart California -- and enough talent working on it -- to suggest that Admiral Radley will evolve into a solid project. But as it stands on this record, they sound too often like they're still feeling it out, which is too bad, because by the time we get to the end of the record, they seem to have hit their stride. Maybe that's where they should have started from.