Over the course of their first two records, Grandaddy created a virtual version of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. But instead of sheltering wide-eyed preteen boys, the Modesto, California, quintet’s spread was a haven for soft-bellied, overeducated slackers who guzzled cheap beer, smoked cut-rate pot, watched the Sci Fi Channel, and cultivated impressively bushy beards. Between trips to the fridge, Grandaddy made music of great promise and ambition, mixing synth pop with indie twang, pilfering Neil Young, Radiohead, and even ELO in equal measure. But they also built plenty of roadblocks to keep the tourists off their land, burdening otherwise hummable songs with titles like “Collective Dreamwish of Upperclass Elegance” and opening one of their albums with a nine-minute epic about time travel.
But on their third album, Grandaddy shake off their more obscurantist tendencies for a warm and deeply engaging snapshot of fractured relationships and existential dread. It’s not a bid for mainstream acceptance by any stretch, but it’s a moment of clarity along the lines of Dark Side of the Moon or OK Computer, the sound of art-rock lifers finding beauty in the inscrutable.
Like the greatest pop song-writers, from Burt Bacharach to Neil Tennant, head Daddy Jason Lytle knows that the best happy music has an essential sadness at its core. Here, reining in the songs to the four-minute range, Lytle builds seriously catchy pop around dark sentiments like “I’m okay / With my decay.” On “Stray Dog and the Chocolate Shake,” he empathizes with assembly-line robots and a limousine that “never got to drive any movie stars,” turning his geeky identification with technology-a common Grandaddy theme-into something more poignant. Elsewhere, “Yeah Is What We Had” perfectly captures those blissful, inarticulate moments before the evening’s chemicals force you into slumber. It’s the sonic equivalent of the month of August: Summer’s almost over, school’s around the corner, so let’s get wasted, weepy, and nostalgic. There’s room for you at the clubhouse.