Valley Special (11/10/2000)
This year, V2 has another critic's darling in Modesto-based Grandaddy. Mixing minor chords and a subdued Major Tom approach, The Sophtware Slump has drawn substantial praise, particularly from the English critics.
Grandaddy consists of leader/vocalist Jason Lytle, bass player Kevin Garcia, drummer Aaron Burtch, guitarist Jim Fairchild, and keyboard player Tim Dryden.
The band celebrates its Central Valley roots with a dour outlook. Said Lytle in one interview, "I think it has been a real chore living here in the particular place that we live. I think that's a real big inspiration, because it can be a pretty sad, depressing, sort of pathetic place to live."
The Sophtware Slump is Grandaddy's second album. Their initial release, Under the Western Freeway, was released on a small Seattle label and built support via substantial word of mouth, especially in England. Lytle comments, "It's so strange, because the British music writers seem to be so cynical about American bands. I don't know why they liked us."
The five members of Grandaddy produce a sound that's hard to pinpoint. Start with OK Computer by Radiohead as a touchstone. Then add in some of the power guitar crunch of Dinosaur Jr. or the Flaming Lips, and the spacey elements of Mercury Rev. And I can hear the strident guitar work of Love & Rockets on "Chartsengraphfs."
Songs like "Jed's Other Palm" have a sweeping beauty to them, with a delirious melody resting in the trough of troubles. Singer Jason Lytle has echoes of the softer Neil Young on songs like "Hewlett's Daughter," and capitalizes on his post-modern charm on songs like "Appliance National Forest," in which he sings, "You said I'd wake up/Get drunk/Alone in the park/I called you a liar/But how right you were."
Jason Lytle just can't help but be a Modesto booster. As he proclaims, "It's a shit-hole for places to play . . . When we play in front of hometown crowds, the audience chant 'FFA!' - that's Future Farmers of America. That's the way things go around here: You drink, and if there's no girls to talk to, you fight."
Yet for all his trash talk, the band remains anchored in Modesto, where they operate in a home studio. (Remember also that Grant Lee Buffalo hails from Modesto.)
Adds Jason, with more than a modicum of truth: "The desert tends to cook people's brains . . . People suffer when they inhabit places best left to nature . . . Air-conditioning and TV have confused people's nomadic sensibilities . . . I tend to kind of let my imagination run wild with the thought of a new breed, of some way to fuse the whole old-school, agricultural mentality with this totally on-the-brink future technology; imagine the superhuman that could produce."
There's a dark beauty to The Sophtware Slump as the band mixes sweeping strings, subdued predictions, and grand melodies. File under modern rock.
Deathray, Deathray (Capricorn 2000) - Greetings from Sacramento for Deathray. Featuring two former members of Cake, Deathray has a well-produced modern rock sound.
Deathray consists of Greg Brown on guitar and vocals, Victor Damiani on bass, Dana Gumbiner on vocals and synthesizer, James Neil on drums, and Max Hart on synth and vocals. Deathray started with long-time friends Brown and Damiani, who have played together in several Sacramento-based bands, most recently Cake.
Brown and Damiani left Cake in 1997 and hooked up with Gumbiner, a Sacramento colleague. The band added drummer James Neil to the team in early 1999, although Michael Urbano (who has worked with Third Eye Blind and Smashmouth) played drums on most of the record. Shortly after the completion of the album, keyboard player/jack-of-all-trades Max Hart became a valued part of the Deathray collective.
The 13 tracks on Deathray include such ditties as "Happy New Year" (described by guitarist Greg Brown as "a melancholy tune for the new year"), "Only Lies" (described by lead vocalist Dana Gumbiner as "kind of a hate song to myself"), and the breakup ditty, "10:15."
Deathray has a more polished pop sound than Cake (whose low-tech debut, "Motorcade of Generosity," remains a marvel). Explains Neil, We're all kind of introverted, but on stage we're a bit possessed. Call it energy, passion, whatever - we just get a little over the top. The songs are all outrageously short, so we tend to play them full throttle."
The album was recorded by producer Eric Valentine at Valentine's studio in Redwood City, California. Says bass player Victor Damiani, "Eric's a non-stop madman - he just comes up with tons of incredibly cool ideas."
Zoppi, Suspended (MCA 2000) - A second Sacramento offering is served by Bob Zoppi and his combo (brothers Rick and Paul Vogelsang on guitars and bass, respectively). Having played together for six years, Zoppi provides dependable California rock.
Bob Zoppi followed an unconventional path: He was born and raised in San Jose, and moved to Sacramento when he was 18. Explains the singer, "All of my songs are derived from real-life situations. For example, 'One Sun,' was written about my struggles with my father."
Suspended was recorded by producer Matthew Wilder (who has worked with No Doubt), at Cam-Am Recorders in Tarzana, California. Rounding out the recording were players Gary Skaggs on keyboards and former Counting Crows member Steve Bowman on drums.
Rock bands from the Central Valley are a critic's delight this year, with their died-in-the-wool sense of melancholy. And Bob Zoppi doesn't disappoint on songs like "Ashamed," "Distorted Views," and "What You Get." While the rock is rolling, the lyrics are decidedly downbeat: if "Life Can't Grow" is confessional, then poor Bob has a bleak future.
Yet there's no complaint about the trio's skill (polished over six years), which reminds me of the LA rock of School of Fish. Bob Zoppi may be Suspended, but he can also bang.
White Hassle, Life is Still Sweet (Orange Recordings 2000) - White Hassle (a take off on the White Castle hamburger chain) is a three-piece combo from New York City. With their blend of techno and retro, White Hassle brings to mind Eels and Cake.
Rounding out the combo is Matt Oliverio (acoustic uitar). The album was recorded at Elegant Studios in New York City with Josh Diamond on violin and Cris Maxwell on trumpet and backing vocals.
I respect the owner of Orange Recordings for releasing out music that he likes. The first two tracks on Life is Still Sweet are the highlights, including the infectious title track, with its blend of technified found sounds.
The last track on this five-song EP, "Futura Trance," is an instrumental with heavy harmonica riffs that sounds like a demented Dylan tune. Also included is a skiffle punk cover of the Everly Brothers hit, "Let It Be Me."
Take a chance on the Life is Still Sweet EP.
- Randy Krbechek © 2000
Check CD Shakedown for Weekly
Reviews of Music CDs and New Albums