Grandaddy's excellent 2000 album The Sophtware Slump was a fascinating blend of neo-psychedelic, blissed-out indie rock and a lyrical theme of one's attempt to transcend the glut of technology in today's urban lifestyle, in search of something more real, more natural, more pastoral. Owing a lot to Radiohead's landmark 1997 album OK Computer, Grandaddy attracted a devoted following of their own, as indie fans gravitated toward the band, entranced by the lazy charm of singer/guitarist/fearless leader Jason Lytle, the array of techno bleeps and bloops, and the endearing tales of dumb pilots and alcoholic androids. As good as that album was, however, there seemed to be a feeling of preciousness underneath it all, a Pavement-esque hint of "aren't we clever", the last half of the album sounding like the band was either too lazy or just unwilling to take the melodies to a higher level. Grandaddy has always seemed on the cusp of pop greatness, as evident on songs like "The Crystal Lake", "He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot", and "Hewlett's Daughter", but those brief flashes of songwriting genius seemed to wane as The Sophtware Slump concluded, the songs awash in a sea of downtempo space rock, like an extremely morose version of The Flaming Lips.
Three long years after that breakthrough album, Grandaddy have returned, and the new CD, called Sumday, continues the band's steady evolution. This time around, it's as if the Modesto, California quartet decided to take their music away from the stuffy Silicon Valley, head on down the coast, and enjoy some sunshine. "Bust the lock off the front door," sings Lytle on the ebullient, buoyant opening track "Now It's On", "Once you're outside you won't wanna hide anymore." The charming warmth of that song sounds like someone opened a window in a dark, stuffy recording studio, letting the sun and fresh air in. The focus on Sumday is now on the songs themselves, as Lytle and Co. tone down on the experimentation, and concentrate on developing some terrific melodies, and though the end result may disappoint fans of Grandaddy's artsier fare, it's really the next logical step for the band. It's not a sin for a band to write accessible, easygoing, catchy songs that have actual depth, and Sumday is loaded with them.
Along with "Now It's On" (the album's first single), with its shamelessly lush vocal harmonies that are so similar to the Alan Parsons Project that it's scary, the next song, "I'm on Standby", gets things off to a very strong start. The techno layers that once sounded like a distraction now contribute more subtly on the album, as "I'm on Standby" features a small effect on Lytle's vocals in the chorus, and the slightest hint of synth accents; and if that weren't mainstream enough, there's even a real, honest-to-goodness guitar solo, as well. "The Go in the Go For It", with its steady, midtempo beat, circa 1980 synths, and layered vocal harmonies, make it the best ELO imitation since Super Furry Animals' "(Drawing) Rings Around the World" two years ago, while "Lost on Yer Merry Way" resembles John Lennon's more tender moments as a solo artist. The irresistible "Stray Dog and the Chocolate Shake" is pure minimalist pop genius, with its ridiculously simple, repeating synth line (one listen, and you'll be whistling it all day long), and "O.K. With My Decay" metamorphoses into an extended exercise in progressive rock-meets-West Coast pop.
The improvement that is most noticeable on Sumday is Jason Lytle's lyric writing, which, though not quite as thematically-linked as on The Sophtware Slump, reach new levels of profundity, as Lytle peppers his songs with perceptive little nuggets that floor you at times. On "The Group Who Couldn't Say", a sublime little song about office workers exposed to nature for the first time in a long time, Lytle's combination of wordplay and simple, Zen-like wisdom is devastating: "Becky wondered why/She'd never noticed dragonflies/Her drag and click had never yielded anything as perfect . . . as a dragonfly." Meanwhile, "Saddest Vacant Lot in the World" is a melancholy character sketch, and "Stray Dog and the Chocolate Shake" serves up some fascinating everyday images, bringing out the profound in the mundane ("There's a shitty limousine parked in front of the bar/That never got to drive any movie stars"). The combination of Lytle's more mainstream songwriting style and his vastly improved lyric writing comes together most perfectly on the gorgeous, Ben Folds-meets-Paul McCartney piano ballad "The Warming Sun", as Lytle plaintively sings to an ex-girlfriend: "But in real life/You're in another world and with another guy/Who doesn't have to cheat and never has to lie." Mopey breakup songs don't get any better than this.
Sumday is yet another big step for Grandaddy, but like their previous effort, it's not quite perfect either, as the album hits a bit of a speedbump during the maudlin "Yeah is What We Had"; when you hear the superb B-side "Getting Jipped" (which appears on the "Now it's On" single), you can't help but wish the upbeat tune would replace that other song. Still, Grandaddy's turn towards more middle-of-the-road fare, though it may not be the coolest thing to do these days, is actually a refreshing change. As a great band like Radiohead continues to lose the plot with each new album, producing more and more songs that bear no discernable hooks whatsoever, it's great to see someone like Grandaddy head in the opposite direction for once. With Sumday, they prove they're capable of some remarkable, breezy music; now, that timeless, classic album seems more within their reach than ever before.