Grandaddy is back together playing shows, in case you hadn’t heard. And since they also reissued The Sophtware Slump last year, this seems like a good time to pile on the praise for their defining album.
And that is what we’re here to do, except I want to talk about their actual defining album, 1997’s debut, Under the Western Freeway. No disrespect to The Sophtware Slump — it is undeniably excellent, but it is also tied to a circa-2000 worry and melancholy around technology that we have mostly left behind (for new anxieties in that field, sure, but still). This doesn’t make the music any less great now, but it does say something about the staying power of Under the Western Freeway, an album that has gotten stronger as the years go by.
It’s an album that was well received, but also often misunderstood. Keen as we are to identify a trend as soon as possible, especially in the indie rock world, Grandaddy was immediately lumped in with the likes of Weezer, a band to which — crunching power chords aside — they bore no likeness to at all. There was no winking Spike Jonze video for these songs, no clever playing with rock archetypes, none of Rivers Cuomo’s teetering mix of smarm and charm. There was just the reedy vocals of Jason Lytle and the odd atmospherics of his band.
Under the Western Freeway has lasted over the years because — unlike The Sophtware Slump — it lives in this world. Nevermind a dystopia of crumbling machinery, on this record Lytle plays guitar and drinks beer “out in the country” on “Collective Dreamwish of Upper Class Elegance.” On single “AM 180,” which you may remember from the closing credits to 28 Days Later, Lytle guilelessly claims he’d be “fine wasting our time not doing anything here.” That “here” is suburban or urban or rural or wherever you can imagine it. It’s a place you know, a place you’ve lived in, grown tired of, and still loved anyway.
This real world (for lack of a better term) makes the sonics of the record all the more resonant and haunting. You except dystopia to sound shadowy and strange. But the white-noise crunch of guitars poked at by ringing pianos on “Summer Kids Here,” especially with those restrained echoing verses in between outbursts, is both energizing and unsettling. The blippy troubled space of “Laughing Stock” is the perfect backdrop for Lytle’s faint vocals, some miasmic stormcloud closing in on him from all sides, but his moping words don’t give in to that attack so much as they push on with a modest touch of hope. “And we agree it’s what we need,” he repeats. “Orchestra real.” It’s a celebrating of sounds based on terra firma. If it dismisses technology, it’s only to celebrate the organic, not to hem and haw over the machines taking over.
It is an album about cutting yourself free and exploring, that much is for sure. The dreamy “Why Took Your Advice” begins with Lytle cutting off his cable, and finds him struggling for an outlet — the radio doesn’t help him, a microphone won’t make him feel better — but it also leads into instrumental closer “Lawn and So On,” a cascading mix of lean power chords and running piano riffs that captures perfectly the band’s sound, tight yet melting at the edges, before it fades into a chorus of crickets. The album ends with sounds of the outdoors, with the deafening quiet of nature, a space where these songs can truly ring out.
It’s also a far more unpredictable record than The Sophtware Slump. That album has the dark inevitability of its own vision — complete with the rise and fall of Jed the Humanoid — but Under the Western Freeway finds them trying out all kinds of experiments, parts that don’t fit perfectly together. The brittle lo-fi of “Poisoned at Hartsy Thai Food” is a strange link between the lush whirl of “Everything Beautiful is Far Away” and the sleepy spiral of “Go Progress Chrome.” The title track, fittingly, is the hardest piece of the record to grapple with, an ambient surge of faux-strings and piano jangle and distant amp grind that both brings the album’s momentum to a halt and changes its direction in a perfect way.
As a whole, Under the Western Freeway may not be the complete statement The Sophtware Slump was, and to be honest a comparison of two albums with such different objectives is hardly fair. But the merits of this album are its incongruities, it’s ability to be both inviting and recognizable but also unknowable. It’s an album that presents itself as a straight-up late-’90s indie rock record (power chords, some dissonant keys, heavy mood) but ends up sounding like something so much more. Something that doesn’t need to create its own alternate universe to exist, something that lives and makes noise in our world — and it sounds all the more alien for it.