Just Like the Fambly Cat

(V2; 2006)

By Matt Stephens | 5 September 2007

Break-up albums are a tricky business. While common sense would lead you to expect that a group of musicians who resent each other, or have a degree of tension or discontentment sufficient enough to make them want to split, would probably make for pretty uncomfortable music-making, history has often had it quite differently. Think of how the seamless song-suites of Abbey Road or the damaged art-pop of Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers took their respective bands into thrilling uncharted waters, or how Loaded did just the opposite, proving that rock’s greatest ever cult band could have had radio hits if they’d felt like it. While you’re just as likely to encounter a disappointment on the level of Pavement’s noodling Terror Twilight or The Clash’s grievous Cut the Crap, my point is this: when a band disintegrates in the course of making a record, good or bad, all bets are off.

So it disappointed me a little initially to find that the fourth and final Grandaddy album, Just Like the Fambly Cat, sounds, well, pretty much just like Grandaddy. For a band who so speedily matured from the dreamy lo-fi of their debut (Under the Western Freeway) to the OK Computer-influenced synthscapes of The Sophtware Slump to the lush but inert Sumday, it felt like a parting shot would offer a great opportunity for bandleader Jason Lytle to push his songs (from the beginning, always an appealing menagerie of influences) into the truly forward-thinking territory they’d frequently seemed on the cusp of.

But Fambly Cat has nothing of that. The band instead settles for a focused reassertion of all their strengths, albeit with a deeper undercurrent of melancholy than before. Freeway’s ecstatic single “Summer Here Kids” is nicely book-ended here by the poignant “Summer… It’s Gone,” where a wandering Lytle navigates the “roads, dead ends and holes / crowds of fools” of an unfamiliar neighborhood. The song, one of several on the fifteen-track album to reach past the five minute mark, feels shorter than it is mostly because of the effortlessness of Lytle’s melody (always the group’s greatest strength) and the way his arrangement hugs it like a warm blanket; the production doesn’t make a nuisance of itself the way it does on much of the band’s earlier output (particularly the wildly overstuffed second half of Sophtware), and giving these songs room to feel themselves out ends up helping their replay value more than a sea of blips or fake strings ever could.

Fambly Cat also sporadically marks the return of the older, noisier Grandaddy who once warranted comparisons to Weezer and Pavement. After the infuriating piano + spoken word sample opener, “Jeez Louise” comes barreling out the gate with a badass ruckus of layered guitar distortion, before settling down into one of the band’s most immediately infectious melodies. There are later forays into this territory, most notably the sublime “Disconnecty” and the awful-but-kind-of-funny hardcore pastiche “50%,” but most of Fambly Cat deals in the kind of mellow California pop that most of us have trouble prying out of our discmen during the summer months.

There are few bands in indie rock who do this kind of thing better; lengthier tracks like “Guide Down Denied,” “Rearview Mirror” and “Where I’m Anymore” seem innocuous at first listen, but sneakily creep under your skin with repeated listens. And for a record of its length, Fambly Cat holds together remarkably well – aside from a couple of tossed off instrumentals and the meandering space dirge “The Animal World,” there isn’t really a weak track in the bunch. And while there are no out-and-out jaw-droppers on the level of “Jed the Humanoid,” and no hook as ridiculous as the one from, say, “A.M. 180,” it’s easier to sit through than any Grandaddy album since their debut, which makes their abrupt demise all the more regrettable. So to those bored to tears by Sumday, take notice: though it fails to break any new ground, Just Like the Fambly Cat is as good a parting shot from these guys as we could have expected, and despite whatever in-fighting or bitterness that might have marred its creation, it sounds like the last will and testament of a band (or, perhaps, a songwriter) with a singular purpose; and if there’s any justice, they will be missed.