My friend Darian used to be in an improvisatory group of rescued-Casio archaeologists whose bleepy minimalism owed any and all melodic influence to the local ice-cream van. They named themselves Telefunken in tribute to a disused radio in their practice space. One day before their first and only gig (at a contemporary-art launch held on a boat in the Thames; the evening’s biggest hit was the etiquette lesson “You’re Not Meant to be Smoking in Here, Mate”), Darian opened the London Times to find his band had been made redundant before they’d started the job: Album of the Week was the bleepy-minimalist A Collection Of Ice Cream Vans Vol. II by Tom Fenn, a/k/a Tele:Funken.
Likewise besotted by kiddie keyboards and blindsided by déjà vu, Grandaddy’s new album also embodies obsolescence both technological and existential—because who can tell the difference anymore? Their previous LP, 2000’s wistfully majestic The Sophtware Slump, eulogized a robot poet who drank himself to death; as the languid Sumday makes all too clear, we are the robot—stricken punch-clock mechas sprung from a Quasi song, too numbly complacent to upgrade our internal software. (Exemplary song title: “O.K. With My Decay.”) Scattered with belated dispatches from the wreckage of the dot-bom, Sumday is knowingly archaic and all-consumingly derivative. Sometimes it sounds just like ELO. Sometimes it sounds just like the Flaming Lips tooling in ELO’s studio. Sometimes it sounds just like the Alan Parsons Project as produced by Jeff Lynne. Whither the glass violins?
Phaser-fazed and analogadaisical, soothed by the white noise of ancient eight-bit computer games, Grandaddy even sew an unmistakable patch of the Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” into “The Go in the Go-for-It,” one of several tracks on Sumday that could compile an alternate soundtrack for Mike Judge’s workaday-anomie fable Office Space. Aptly, the rhythm section induces a nine-to-five trance: You could get carpal tunnel just listening to Kevin Garcia’s repetitive-task basslines, and drummer Aaron Burtch maintains fidelity to a single beat pattern like a true company lifer, though the liner notes indicate slight stirrings of discontent. They write, “Hopefully we won’t get too fed up with the music business and we can continue this relationship with you all for a good long time”—barring any more mishaps such as the one suffered earlier this month by guitarist Jim Fairchild, who only missed one gig after being run over by Grandaddy’s own tour bus.
Blending Lynne’s milky, impassive tenor with Wayne Coyne’s puberty-fractured yelp, Jason Lytle’s voice echoes and dissipates in a series of weedy industrial endzones: the factory in “Stray Dog and the Chocolate Shake,” where (metaphorical?) robots toil in the dark after hours while a carload of the young, bored, and underemployed gets wasted outside, or the waltz-cum-dirge “The Saddest Vacant Lot in All the World,” where trouble begins at home: “She’s in the kitchen cryin’ by the oven,” Lytle sings, invoking the working title of my autobiography.
Lazy and hazy, Sumday sleeps in awfully late, shaking off ennui most convincingly when the electric lights shine brightest on a soft bulletin. The final pair of songs, “The Warming Sun” and “The Final Push to the Sum,” with their weather-specific memories and melancholic whimsy, fall squarely in the realm of the Coyne. Lytle’s narrator pines, as best an automaton can, for the girl who got away—in favor of “a warm someone” she didn’t have to load with a Good Boyfriend program. Indeed, Sumday is the real software slump. This application is not responding.