Do you remember the immediate and palpable differences between Nirvana’s Nevermind and In Utero albums? Most critics – and fans, for that matter – will point to the production as the most prominent factor that distinguishes the lauded grunge band’s second and third albums. Nevermind boasted a glossy veneer and shimmer that, as it turned out, did a pretty fine job of camouflaging Kurt Cobain’s staunch lo-fi aesthetic. Butch Vig handled the boards on that record, and his super-slick mixdown was indisputably one of the paramount reasons that all things once regarded as underground soon became paradoxically labeled as mainstream alternative rock. When the band returned to the studio for the recording of In Utero, they brought along with them recording engineer and indie demigod Steve Albini – a man whose meticulous microphone placement and aversion to multi-track recording made it feel like Dave Grohl’s drums were punching you right in the gut.
Albini has worked with countless artists both famous and obscure over the decades, but his recent partnership with New York-based trio Grandfather recalls many of the musical predilections that were sweeping across America back in 1993, just as Nirvana’s swan song was hitting shelves. This is not to suggest that Grandfather is merely a post-grunge knockoff; the Josh Hoffman-led outfit may indulge in sludgy textures, lyrical themes of despondency, and grinding passages of feedback, but their instrumental execution is more prog-rock than it is Pearl Jam. Part of the reason grunge had its moment in the limelight was because it pinpointed that tricky location where punk rock attitude and heavy metal fury could peacefully coexist with a melodic pop sensibility. By contrast, Grandfather isn’t much for hooks or earworm riffs; these guys are more content to pound out odd-meter grooves, unconventional song structures, and abrupt alterations in decibel levels (you can forget the soft verse/loud chorus formula that Albini had previous accented in his work with the Pixies and Nirvana). If you’ve been jonesing for a Tool/Alice in Chains collabo however, this is probably the closest you’ll get.
Grandfather – Hoffman on vocals and drums, Mike Kirsch on guitars, and Jonathan Silverman handling the bass – presents some fairly compelling reminders of why rock music’s maturation was such a thrill in the ‘90’s. The band’s debut record, Why I’d Try, is an industrious mixture of thunderous drumming, intensely melodic bass playing, and Hoffman’s droning vocals. Opening cut “You’re Strange” is shockingly reserved compared to the rest of the disc’s offerings, built around a chugging minor 2nd chord progression that oscillates between unadulterated and positively filthy. The catch is that, unlike the more gratuitous blueprint of classic grunge music, you never quite know when the shift is coming.
Beyond the tentative introduction, the group plays with a greater sense of verve. “Tremors” merges a trip-hop worthy bass ostinato with spiraling echoes of psychedelic guitar harmonies. “AWOL” is an album standout – clocking in just north of 2:00, the insistent 7/4 time signature and caterwauling outro exhibit a sort of brevity commonly lacking in music this cerebral. “Caught Off Guard” is fitting of its name, prone to unorthodox chord voices, bursts of guitar squall, and exceptionally pained singing from Hoffman. On “It’s Good Enough Now,” Silverman’s bass playing comes to the fore; his sustained passage of notes suggests Grandfather’s ability to evoke fleeting moments of peace and calm on a record that largely boasts of more violent and erratic atmospheres.
For a band that seems so coolly assured on their respective instruments, it’s a bit of a shame that Josh Hoffman doesn’t take more risks as a vocalist. Whether or not his role as the band’s time keeper trumps his duties at the mic, it would’ve made for a more captivating listen if Hoffman sometimes steered away from the quivering and melismatic style of singing that seems to be his comfort zone. It would’ve been affecting in moderation, but here its overabundance causes lyrics such as “all by myself this time / down to the dirt this time” (“By Myself”) and “in the end / there’s nothing more” (“No One Knows No One”) to come off as whiny and melodramatic.
This one flaw excepted, Grandfather should be credited for cutting such a visceral and imposing record; in an era where more is more, electronic enhancements are the norm, and bands swell in size to 10+ members, it’s a real treat to revel in the simple pleasures of listening to three guys who play sinewy and uninhibited rock n’ roll.