Remember how no one cared when Emmitt Smith broke Walter Payton's rushing record? It was more of a pathetic moment than anything else; a once-great athlete playing in meaningless games, just hanging on for some cheap glory. Smith's dogged determination is an embarrassingly accurate metaphor for America's record-obsessed culture. These days stats trump dignity and grace every time. So it comes with great sadness that I see correlations between Just Like the Fambly Cat and Smith's 2004 season with the Arizona Cardinals. Okay, so Grandaddy hasn't been sticking around for some unbeknownst indie-rock accolades, but this, the band's fourth and final LP, is just no way for a great one to go.
Grandaddy's legacy is secure thanks to its two genre-shaping albums, Under the Western Freeway (1997) and The Software Slump (2000). The former gave us the first glimpse of the bands' spacey, synth-washed, country-tinged tweaker-rock that wallowed in the boldly esoteric lyricism that we've come to recognize from Grandaddy. The latter solidified the band's reputation and still stands as a stylistic beacon in its sonic aspects and in its lyrical content, detailing the clash of man and machine in frontman Jason Lytle's unmistakable, sullenly sardonic way.
Just Like the Fambly Cat sounds like a Grandaddy album, but only in that it rehashes everything the band has already done. Filter Magazine described the record perfectly as "like a 'Greatest Hits' made up entirely of brand new songs," and although that was meant as a compliment, I feel it's an accurate strike against the band's swansong. Boldness is absent, predictability is rampant and the feeling that Lytle's Titanic of musical creativity is slowly sinking can't be escaped (at least in his Grandaddy incarnation). Lyrically, though, there are some good moments, with Lytle getting self-referential, peering back -- as if through the "Dail-A-View" -- on sentiments and themes from his older work, at times seeming more optimistic or at least realistic when contrasting his former statements.
A few songs on Fambly Cat do stand up to the expectations. "Summer ... It's Gone" sounds like a robot-cowboy lullaby and seems to be the answer to Under the Western Freeway's fuzzed-out rocker "Summer Here Kids." "Guide Down Denied," the album's best moment, sees Lytle coming to terms with the band's demise against a wasteland arrangement that buds with electronic string accompaniment before settling into the sparest of outros with Lytle lamenting repeatedly, "Guide down denied." This song feels like the attempt at summation you would expect on a band's final album, and in its moment it's a perfect encapsulation of Grandaddy.
Lytle, Tim Dryden, Kevin Garcia, Jim Fairchild and Aaron Burtch have been together as Grandaddy for more than fourteen years, and they have left a mark to be proud of. As for Fambly Cat, Lytle sums up the album all too well with this statement: "Cats are renowned for just disappearing when they're ailing. And then they're just gone." So maybe Grandaddy's exit isn't really like Smith's. Is this what dignity looks like? I really don't know anymore.
Prefix interview of Jason Lytle by John MacDonald
This, the final album from Modesto, California alternative outfit Grandaddy, is a swan song in every way. Only their fourth full-length, its tracks are mostly retreads of earlier Grandaddy tunes, and it revisits earlier themes: suburban sprawl, an affinity for all things natural, skater malaise, and teenage angst. Album closer "This is How it Always Starts" details the beginning of the end for the band. In fact, band leader Jason Lytle completed most of the album off by himself, and the album title refers to the way a family cat disappears when it is about to die. The album stands as more of a referral to better times and much better output from a quite original band.