Despite the indie rock hue to their sound, Grandaddy’s deep respect for punk music evidently permeated their lifestyle and work ethic during their early years. The Californian band is fronted by Jason Lytle, once a professional skateboarder who suffered a knee injury, and so looked to music to find his second calling. By using his contacts, Lytle won Grandaddy many a show at local skateboarding competitions as they were starting out, at the same time as he was working in sewage treatment plants in order to cover the group’s expenses. As the group began to make headway in the industry following the release of their debut album in 1997, Under the Western Freeway, their sound was compared to numerous artists, ranging from Pixies to Radiohead to The Flaming Lips to Weezer. Indeed, Grandaddy displayed diverse influences on their debut, but the result was a sound that was unequivocally theirs and couldn’t quite be pinned down as being inspired by any one particular artist. The space rockers’ comeback album, Last Place, arrives over a decade after their initial breakup in 2006 which resulted from a lack of sufficient income, and many of these same influences can be heard on this, their fifth studio album. Indeed, to some extent, Last Place seems to pick up where the band’s previous album, Just Like the Fambly Cat, left off, with Last Place sounding like somewhat of a throwback to the group’s signature spacey, psychedelic indie sound. Grandaddy still sound playful and charismatic, which contrasts the typical foreboding or melancholic themes that have always been present in Lytle’s lyrics and often revolve around technological development. It’s certainly the case that Last Place presents a Grandaddy with whom we are all familiar and who will surely please fans of the band. However, from a critical perspective, this comeback record feels a bit too rehashed at times to exhibit any significant development for the group, rather it gives off the impression that Just Like the Fambly Cat was perhaps best left as Grandaddy’s sign-off record, as Last Place seems to be running low on new or interesting ideas. That’s not to say that there aren’t some perfectly pleasing songs on this record, but it doesn’t feel entirely pivotal to Grandaddy’s sound or style, which is even more pertinent given its status as a comeback record.
Last Place opens with its lead single and perhaps the most classic-sounding Grandaddy song on the entire album, Way We Won’t, and despite being nothing new for the indie outfit, it’s successful thanks to its straightforward catchiness. The groove over the verses is incredibly simple, with straight drumming and chugging guitar chords, but Lytle’s delicate and slightly dreamy vocals are where the listener’s attention is focussed because of the singer’s compelling performance and memorable lyrics. Lytle’s sweet description of what sounds like a typical town — referencing big-box stores and back-to-school sales — is really quite charming, especially as he ends this list of seemingly mundane aspects of town life with, “Why would we ever move?” Also, the repetitive, fuzzy guitar line during the chorus is beautifully smooth, and is rather pleasant in its simplicity. Unfortunately, the four minute and 22 second runtime seems somewhat unwarranted for such a repetitious and straightforward song, but the sweet melodies are just about enough reason to forgive this decision. The second track, Brush With the Wild, despite being slightly synth-driven, continues the general mood of Way We Won’t. The synthesizers are used to very good effect, adding another texture to expand the soundscape so that this track has more points of interest than Lytle’s smooth vocals and the nice slide guitar line. The synth sound of this record is developed much further on the next song, Evermore, which relies on rich synth chords to provide the foundation of the cut. As previously mentioned, one of the bands to whom Grandaddy have often been compared is The Flaming Lips, and this seems to be more evident on Last Place than perhaps any other album of theirs, as numerous songs here are reminiscent of several eras in the psychedelic rock band’s history. It’s on Evermore that Grandaddy really start to channel The Flaming Lips, with even Lytle’s vocal delivery being similar in style and technique to that of Wayne Coyne. Once again, however, like the previous two cuts in the tracklisting, Evermore is a perfectly nice song that unfortunately sees little in the way of significant progression. A great deal of songs on this record are based on ideas that could have been developed as to create rich and vibrant pieces, but Grandaddy display somewhat of a lack of focus, leaving some of these cuts feeling underwhelming at times.
Whilst the tracks that exceed four minutes tend to drag on and run the risk of losing the listener’s interest as a result, the shorter cuts on Last Place provide some of the most interesting moments on the record. Chek Injin, for instance, barely surpasses two minutes, but nevertheless stands out in the tracklisting thanks to its allusion to certain punk sensibilities. Although Lytle’s breezy vocals root the song’s sound in the band’s usual indie rock style, the fast-paced groove and the accented chorus as the singer repeats “Check engine” over and over again create a simplicity that has a distinct air of punk to it. It may not be an incredible song, but it’s at least a stand out song in the tracklisting as a result of its definitive character. That’s What You Get for Gettin’ Out of Bed is a slow-paced ballad of sorts, starting out with just Lytle and an acoustic guitar before the rest of the band supports the singer with a steady groove and some nice synth lines. Ultimately, whilst there may be certain melodies or lyrics or effects that stay with the listener, Last Place is, overall, a rather rudimentary return for Grandaddy, with little here furthering the stylings established during their initial career.
As a comeback album, Last Place feels more like a project intended to please fans of Grandaddy with a surprise record that they never thought they were going to get. However, in terms of what it means for the band’s position in the contemporary music world, the music here hasn’t progressed enough from its initial state as to solidify Grandaddy’s position in the industry, as this is an album that I don’t see being talked about much in a year’s time. The group seem very much resigned to the sound established during their initial career, but to reuse this same blueprint over a decade after their departing record highlights that said style lacks a definitive individuality in 2017. For the most part, the songs on Last Place are perfectly enjoyable and retain a broad sense of appeal, but the lack of a willingness to progress these tracks beyond their basic premises makes for some underwhelming moments. Of course, the big question now is what the future holds for Grandaddy. If Last Place isn’t merely a one-off comeback album and the band plan on putting out more material, a project that sees the group expand on their pre-established stylings would be the next logical step. I certainly hope this is the path that Grandaddy take, as it seems that a reworking of their sound is needed in order for the group to maintain relevant in the current musical climate.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10