A perfectly depressing, and depressingly perfect, swansong for the California dreamers
Grandaddy’s final album is deeply elegiac, but then, so were the previous four. Together, they comprise a disquieting chronicle of a sector of American civilization inhabited by lost souls living in cars that don’t run. On Just Like The Fambly Cat, songwriter Jason Lytle once again drapes a tattered astral gauze over the strip-mall banalities that surround him, presumably as an escape mechanism to despair, or the “color printer blues,” as he wryly puts it in “Disconnecty.”
The band’s other distinguishing marks — the mock-heroic powerchords, the cut-rate arpeggios of analog synths, Lytle’s Neil Young-emulating vocals — are reprised as well. But everything now seems as worn out and used up as Lytle’s subjects, along with the imagery that brings them to life. The album as a whole resembles the garage sale described, with characteristically telling detail, in “Where I’m Anymore”; as if the band’s sounds and themes had lost whatever value their owners had once attributed to them, like “exercise equipment piled high” on “oil-stained driveways.” All of that makes the album’s self-referential centrepiece, “Rear View Mirror”, all the more poignant. Affirmation occurs only in the anthemic instrumental “Skateboarding Saves Me Twice,” which wordlessly conjures up vivid, slow-motion footage of laughing, airborne children, and by extension suggests that there is still something to live for.
If Just Like The Fambly Cat overtly concerns itself with the world Lytle lived in until breaking up the band and moving from the smalltown of Modesto in Northern California to Montana, its underlying theme is Grandaddy itself, a group whose considerable artistic achievements went down as the members struggled to put food on the table. They also had to deal with the related reality that any discussion of the conjoined themes of technology and metaphysics in alternapop begins not with Grandaddy, but with the Flaming Lips, and it’s tough to keep the faith when your work is overlooked and undervalued. For all these reasons, Just Like the Fambly Cat stands as a modern landmark in an obscure subgenre that might be labelled the underdog saga, the template for which was set by Mott, the 1973 masterpiece from another band that never got the respect it deserved.
By Bud Scoppa