WHEN I LEFT on my annual journey to the South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, in March of 1999, the only thing I knew about the band Grandaddy was that it had recently appeared on one of those ubiquitous best-of-the-year artist/critic polls in a magazine I had recently read. (I think it was in Magnet, but I could be wrong.) The band's debut album, Under the Western Freeway (1998), was picked as one of the year's five best releases by none other than then-V2 label-mate Howe Gelb, the Giant Sandman himself. It was as good a recommendation as any, and I found myself at their showcase based on Howe's good taste. Their set proved to be the best one I saw all week by a band I hadn't previously heard.
Fast-forward to a May, 2000 interview in which Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle was asked, "Who is your all-time hero?" Not musical hero, mind you, but all-time hero. His answer?
"Howe Gelb, the frontman of Giant Sand."
Tucsonans will get to witness this mutual admiration society when Grandaddy and Giant Sand team up for a show Thursday night at Solar Culture.
Hailing from Modesto, Calif., Grandaddy is touring in support of its second full-length release (following last year's interim EP, Signal to Snow Ratio). The new effort is craftily titled The Sophtware Slump (2000). It and its predecessor were both released on V2. The new album's title is a nod to both the traditionally crappy second-album phenomenon (as in: You have your whole life to come up with material for your first album, and only a year to write your second), as well as the concept (don't let that scare you off) of the album itself.
Slump has been garnering comparisons to Radiohead, but I'd argue those comparisons have less to do with the music itself than with the fact that both Slump and Radiohead's OK Computer mine similar thematic territory--i.e., the effect of technology on a society largely unprepared to deal with its repercussions. Musically closer to The Flaming Lips or Sparklehorse, the band composes lushly beautiful opuses that sound slightly less crafted than either of those two bands' work. Or maybe they're just as well crafted but simply rely less on studio trickery than on the juxtaposition of found-junk analog equipment (I hesitate to use the term lo-fi, because it doesn't quite apply here) with well-orchestrated arrangements.
The juxtaposition is especially apropos in consideration of the technology-versus-nature theme running rampant throughout Slump: "How's it going 2000 man?/Welcome back to solid ground my friend/I heard all your controls were jammed/It's just nice to have you back again" (from "He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot"); "Should never have left the crystal lake/for areas where trees are fake/and dogs are dead with broken hearts/collapsing by the coffee carts/The crystal lake it only laughs/It knows you're just a modern man/It's shining like a chandelier/Shining somewhere far away from here/I've gotta get out of here" (from "The Crystal Lake").
Possibly the best testament here to the Grandaddy m.o. is "Broken Household Appliance National Forest," which begins with Lytle's reedy voice (sounding not unlike the Lips' Wayne Coyne) intoning melancholically over droning keyboards, "The refrigerators house the frogs/The conduit is the hollow log." Then it launches into a catchy guitar-blast of a chorus: "Air conditioners in the woods...Mud and metal mixing good," which leads to a premature quick fake-out/fade-out before starting the process over again.
So maybe its equipment isn't as up-to-date as The Flaming Lips' million-track studio, but Grandaddy uses whatever it stumbles across to create a unique analog-driven, organic sound, and they've got the songwriting skills to pull it off. With The Sophtware Slump, the band has once again proven itself worthy of the praise bestowed upon it, and has rightfully earned a spot on the mantle next to those great artists to whom they've been compared.
Grandaddy and Giant Sand appear at 9 p.m. on Thursday, July 13, at Solar Culture, 31 E. Toole Ave. Cover charge for this all-ages show is $6. For more information call 884-0874.