Grandaddy – Sumday


Although it might be an admission that will cost me cool points with the indie rock intelligentsia, I have to admit that I didn’t like Radiohead’s Kid A when I first heard it in the fall of 2000. Having worshipped Ok Computer to the point of declaring it the “best record in the last 30 years” to everyone within earshot, the adoption of far less linear song structures and the abandonment of guitars in favor of brooding techno soundscapes was more than a little off-putting for me. I wanted Ok Computer, Pt. 2, and all Thom Yorke and company were offering was “artistic growth” and the death of guitar rock. But Radiohead was right; history has vindicated them, and Kid A was exactly what the music world need from its greatest contemporary band (not to mention a pretty fantastic record once you pushed on the walls of the hallways of your mind a bit). They did what great artists across millennia have done: they pushed themselves, challenged their audience, and took a chance that posited them squarely at the next step in their evolution. And while Grandaddy’s Sophtware Slump wasn’t loaded down with quite the same amount of critical gushing as Ok Computer, the anticipations for their follow-up, Sumday, are similarly high, leaving everyone to wonder if they will push into the sonic unknown or tread artistic water.

All expectations fade into the periphery with the opening “Now it’s On,” a track that is startling for its utter straightforwardness, with a simple mid-tempo groove giving birth to a few fat guitar solos and gurgling taser gun sounds but ultimately coming to the soaring, catchy chorus with as little grandiosity as possible. The following “I’m on Standby,” one of the first songs to come from the techno-phobe generation to assume a robot’s point of view, and the clever “The Go in the Go-For-It,” a catalogue of stagnation and ennui, feature more instantly digestible melodies and well-placed sentiments but superficially sound so similar that they almost seem to have been built upon the same rhythmic and textural template. “Lost on Your Merry Way” provides a suitably lush ballad, complete with synth strings, multi-tracked harmonies, an oh-so-subtle bridge, and an irresistibly stutter-stepping melody, surely one of their most majestically sparkling moments, just as “El Caminos in the West” breaks from the pack a bit with it’s vaguely ominous minor key rocking, but both are well within their established tradition. And that’s not entirely a bad thing, but for those expecting Grandaddy to make a grand gesture of their artistic adventurousness, it isn’t necessarily found on the first half of the album. Six songs in and they have hardly broken out of a drowsy 4/4 time.

With lines like “All that I ask tonight / Is that I make it home alive / No crashes / No explosions / No fights / I wanna get back home,” it’s not hard to see how Jason Lytle has been accused of being a little too Yorke-minded as a songwriter, but people who say that Grandaddy rip off Radiohead are being disingenuous: they rip off the Flaming Lips and Neil Young just as often. “Saddest Vacant Lot in All the World” simply oozes the kind of delicately damaged piano charm that made Neil Young a wealthy man 30 years ago. Alternately, when they go for whimsy and symphonic synthiness on “Stray Dog and the Chocolate Shake,” they can sound amazingly like the Flaming Lips, albeit a less willingly absurd sort. After all, as smart as Lytle is as a songwriter, he just can’t capture the same aura of crushing isolation that seems to be pushing Yorke into an increasingly early grave with each succeeding album. With their friendlier, less imposing brand of fear, Grandaddy falls on the more apathetic, tragically disillusioned end of the repulsed-by-the-modern-world spectrum. In short, they continue to hold the middle ground, both musically and conceptually, between Radiohead and the Flaming Lips.

Happily, and somewhat surprisingly, just when the album seems to be running low on petrol, it’s discovered that Sumday has been back loaded with its three best songs. “I have no choice / I have no voice / I have say” form the philosophical backbone of the wistfully listless (and almost defiantly tranquil) “Ok with My Decay,” a lush pop song full of doo doo doos and obvious ear candy that, nonetheless, provides a cogent commentary. Sturdy, almost gospel-ish piano, carries out the intro of the morosely spacey “The Warming Sun,” another track that finds the bridge between Neil Young moroseness and Pink Floyd’s otherworldly intergalactic twinkle, with somber rising choruses floating on top of cooing synths and computerized harps. A sweet coda in ¾ time, the album comes full circle with “The Final Push to the Sun,” a song that encompasses all of the insecurity and longing for fulfillment that form the thematic arc of their myopic odyssey, with xylophone and piano blinking out the melody before their submerged in the crash of drums and blossoming layered harmonies. It’s in the song’s quieter moments that everything that the band has hinted at for the entire length of the album is finally realized.

Now, with Kid A long removed from the strange mélange of critical drooling and chin scratching that it induced in 2000, it comes as little surprise that Thom Yorke is already trying to distance himself from the more readily rocking Hail to the Thief. For creating their most accessible, and, in many ways, most conventional album, Grandaddy are unapologetic. In the end, Sumday could nearly be labeled as The Sophtware Slump, Pt. II, but to do so would be to dismiss a truly exceptional batch of songs because of a feature completely independent of their relative quality. It’s a good, nearly great, record that does little to dim the artistic fire that has powered their best work, yet does just as little to allow their creative embers to spread to other areas of the rock spectrum. Still, even among the converted, this record is likely to always be relegated to the shadows for those for whom The Sophtware Slump was their first love. It ultimately might be a slightly less dynamic record, but Grandaddy never said they here to save rock and roll, and it’s hard to penalize them for not reinventing themselves. What they have done is maintained a position that very few bands can ever reach, continuing to hold that spot with their distinctive sense of tunefully traumatized, conceptually intriguing indie rock. And if they’re treading water, few bands have done it with better results.