Music Reviews


(Dangerbird) Rating - 6/10

With his band, Grandaddy, Jason Lytle emerged from Modesto, California with a pair of incredible albums at the turn of the millennium, The Sophtware Slump and Sumday. They were airy, ethereal, catchy, and told stories that were laden with an imagined nostalgia we'll feel in an era beyond our current technological boom, where we'll wistfully ruminate about the wired and micro-chipped refuse of our past. Songs were populated by a drunk robot, someone named “2000 Man,” and broken appliances, then transitioned into reflections about the deterioration of corporate supremacy. They were like the connective tissue between two Mike Judge films that also straddled the millennium, Office Space and Idiocracy.

But Lytle's poetry and plaintive voice were more literary than cinematic so that the albums somehow tracked alongside an authorial correlative, George Saunders. Saunders, a Booker Prize-winning writer of fiction, tells keenly voiced stories that lampoon corporate-speak and are stuffed, like Grandaddy's songs, with gadgetry that is one part futurist creation, another part clunky forgotten ideas of 50s Disney Imagineers—those folks who built animatronic creatures populating plastic-leaved pastoral scenes. And like Grandaddy and Mike Judge, two of Saunders' greatest collections were released on either side of the millennium. I guess there was something in the air back then.

To add another comparison, Grandaddy's early albums were often likened to OK Computer in terms of their scope, ambition, and subject matter. Yet Grandaddy didn't mimic Radiohead's stratospheric arc to stardom. Instead, like the machinery and office colloquialisms in their music, Grandaddy disappeared into the sunset, with each subsequent album generating less interest, while those early albums graze somewhere in a warm, fading, nostalgic Modesto sunset. 

After Grandaddy broke up in 2006, Lytle continued making solo records, ostensibly still Grandaddy albums, until an official reunion and new Grandaddy long play, Last Place, was released in 2017. In the meantime, Lytle has produced a Band of Horses album, joined members of Earlimart to form a new band (Admiral Radley), and worked with the bland super-group BNQT with members of Band of Horses, Franz Ferdinand, Travis, and Midlake.

Which brings me to Lytle's latest extracurricular work, NYLONANDJUNO, an album of instrumental tracks made to accompany a New York art installation put on by an art collective known as Arthur King Presents. Lytle gave himself a restriction with this one, opting to generate sounds using only an old synthesizer and a nylon string guitar. The result is a series of tracks that chug along rhythmically and repetitively, attempting to conjure, it seems, some of the techno-nostalgia of early Grandaddy. The soundscape feels spare and ruminative, like dried arroyos of bleak air—but throughout, something feels missing. Arguably, the actual art installation would complete Lytle's vision, but that's not good enough for me. Lytle's instrumentals aspire to the rhythmic ambiance that Philip Glass achieved for The Thin Blue Line, a soundtrack that doesn't need the movie to succeed. No, the better comparison would be to something less refined and rushed-out, like the synth-heavy accompaniments to any number of cult nineties films. Cyborg and Hardware come to mind.

Those movies are low budget affairs, and they feel it. The same could be said about NYLONANDJUNO. Lytle hasn't lost the ability to conjure up feelings of technological angst via the baked cow pastures of Modesto, but NYLONANDJUNO is not an album of ambiance and textures that stands on its own. It is neither layered enough, carefully curated, nor intricate enough to generate a field of sound that you can disappear into for hours on end. Instead, Lytle has put to tape just enough music for an art installation you might pass through once. Lytle's voice and lyrics have always been the lynch-pin of his various projects, and with those absent, this project feels vacuous and not in a generative way. Maybe Lytle has finally embodied the spectral, forgotten machines put to pasture in his remarkable early work.