IT'S EASY to be Seattle-centric. When the sun shines on the Olympics, it's fucking glorious, and incredible music springs up at a seemingly endless pace; despite the implications of our high suicide rate, life here is fantastic. It may be difficult and even pointless to imagine life anywhere else, but I ask you to consider Modesto, California. Situated about 90 miles east of the Bay Area, Modesto, population 180,000, is gaining quite a reputation for two reasons. Farming? Wineries? Software companies? Microbrews? Parking lots? Nope: Grandaddy and Fiver.
Strings for Satellites (Devil in the Woods)
The Sophtware Slump (V2)
These two cerebral, lucid bands and their odd and beautiful records are giving us Seattleites a run for our indie-rock money. Music industry types like to foam at the mouth and espouse half-truths in an attempt to peg the new scene. Austin! Athens! Aberdeen? So let it be said that I'm decidedly not declaring Modesto the next Olympia, merely asserting that the 209 area code is the residence of a couple of hometown bands that have done awfully damn good. Far from touting their town as the next big thing or cultivating any sort of hype or image, Fiver and Grandaddy intelligently present homegrown messages and otherworldly realism.
Both of the two bands' latest releases include undeniable yet mystical homages to home. With Fiver's second release, Strings for Satellites (Devil in the Woods), the proclivity to idealize the world comes face to face with boyish simplicity and crashing guitar swells. Tiny, meaningful moments become full with sad trumpets blowing, feedback fuzz, looped interludes, references to small-town secrets, and the sweet, slightly whining voice of the boy next door. On "Don't Tell Me How to Rock, I'm From Here," homespun haughtiness is backed by brassy cymbals and lines like, "Wait for the day/when we will blow away/we'll take the crown/and we will rock this town." On the tragic but rockin' "This Is Up," a moving guitar line pushes the melody and a healthy dose of cynicism drives the point. The vocals cautiously hole up in the backyard of the track, little more than whispers: "Almost dawn and I'm the only one/hang the babies from the dying trees." Digging at the heart of the love/hate relationship that festers and blossoms in small towns, cities, and suburbia alike, this cleverly reverent collection of songs fully examines American life.
Grandaddy's second full-length—and fifth release overall—digs even deeper, illuminating the predicament of life on earth. The Sophtware Slump (V2 Records) is a kooky, convoluted concept album centered on the human condition in the material world. Ambivalence about the intersection of technological advances and the human heart prevails and flourishes. The listener feels no pressure to take sides; Grandaddy certainly does not ask you to buck the system or trash your T-1 line. Rather, uncertainty about this life hangs out in the spaces around the lo-fi production noises. The music, while rooted in the sort of country/rock guitar chords that you might expect from a band named after the guy who hangs out on the porch with his dog and his pipe, ends up intensely fuzzy and supernatural, musically and emotionally. A layered, faintly Flaming Lips-like psychedelia rounds out the straightforward core. In "Miner at the Dial-a-View," our subject finds himself magically able to view his past loves and lives; this poor soul doesn't meet resolution by the end of the song, instead endlessly deliberating at the corner of having his high-tech cake and eating it, too. And hey, don't we all? Another pre-apocalyptic character, Jed the Humanoid, pops up in a couple of songs. When frontman Jason Lytle strains, "As the years went by we gave Jed less attention/we had new inventions," you wish you could apologize to your old Atari game and lovingly care for the Commodore Vic 20 you so thoughtlessly dropped off at the town dump.
Spend an afternoon listening to Fiver and Grandaddy and you'll most likely find yourself calling up Modesto on MapQuest, especially as you recall that the Central Valley of California also gave the world the seminal indie band Pavement and, more recently, Modest Mouse's touring partners, Duster. Given the worlds that both Fiver and Grandaddy set to music—stark, real, and cautiously creeping toward the future—you've gotta wonder exactly what's going on down there. Road trip, anyone?