I am always a bit skeptical when bands reunite. It usually seems like an attempt by Nineties-era groups to rekindle some spark that has long since been snuffed out. Still, once in a while, a band can catch fire again and things roll on exactly as they had years ago. Such is the case with Grandaddy, a band that never really needed to go away. Frontman Jason Lytle put out some solo albums and, yeah, those sounded like Grandaddy so why not just get the band back together again to see if the magic was still there?
Well, the group has done just that and, somewhat surprisingly, Last Place, out Friday via 30th Century Records, is a fine, fine record. It is pleasantly affecting and full of the sort of rich, warm electronica-based indie-pop that this band made so many years ago. Dubbed the American Radiohead by some -- or did I just invent that label? -- Grandaddy alternated in the past between languid, down-tempo rockers and nerdier stuff. Thankfully, here on Last Place the band sounds older, and perhaps wiser, and thoroughly at home with this new material, and less inclined to force those clever numbers about robots and stuff upon us. In some ways, thanks to the extent to which the material suits the band's talents and vice versa, Last Place is this group's most assured long-player to date.
"Way We Won't and "Evermore" are languid, sleek-edged numbers that, in the usual Grandaddy fashion, blend a sort of retro-futurism with the Americana of an old Neil Young album. The band's skill at this sort of thing hits a sort of late-career peak on "I Don't Wanna Live Here Anymore", a cousin to some of the cuts on the band's earliest records. Lytle's voice here charms with that familiar mix of yearning and resignation that his best vocal performances with this band always had. Grandaddy is his project and one can't imagine anyone else being able to vocally-anchor this material so well, as one listen to the chiming "Brush With The Wild" illustrates. Similarly, the sublime "That's What You Get For Gettin' Outta Bed" marries that voice to one of the best hooks on this record, the band sounding a bit like High Llamas here. Elsewhere, the epic "A Lost Machine" veers into territory first charted by this crew on albums like The Sophtware Slump so long ago. The lyrics here, the stuff of naff dystopian fantasy, somehow work with Lytle at the mic, the piano and keyboard textures behind him coating this thing in a sheen of cold despair. At their very best, like on this number, Grandaddy have a knack for using Lytle's voice as the only human element in an odd landscape of broken machines, the sort of thing that sounds very much like the subject of one or two of their older songs. Here, on "A Lost Machine", the band has crafted one of their very best songs and I found the end result so moving that it almost made me forgive them the silly "Check Injin" on this same record.
While there's little here as upbeat or as successfully-realized as "The Crystal Lake", there's loads to quietly love on Last Place. Grandaddy here sound so at ease and comfortable inhabiting this sonic world they created so long ago that listeners can forgive the slight sameness that pervades portions of this record. At their very best, these tracks each stand on their own, the sort of things that deserve to be plopped down on future mix-tapes and playlists to cause listeners to focus on how so much can be done with so little, and how each number, when taken out of context, stands on its own as a mini-masterpiece in this band's catalog. "This Is The Part", for example, is so simple, so perfect, that a listener could be forgiven for missing the gentle interplay of the strings and guitars near the song's rising coda, or the way that Jason Lytle is barely singing here. The cut, like so many on Last Place, is so effortlessly Grandaddy-esque that, as I listened to this, I felt guilty for not missing this band more while they were away.
It's like I never knew how much I loved this band until this record arrived. I can think of no higher praise for Last Place than that.
[Photo: Uncredited photo from the band's Facebook page]