Road to Nowhere

Grandaddy and Modest Mouse ride suburban alienation from the interstates to outer space

I work over at the movie theater and it[']s so hard for us to go places like on our halfs because of all the traffic on the other side of I-90[.] I know this would take time and effo[r]t to raise money for something like this....But have you ever though[t] [of putting] a walk ramp over I-90 from the side the movie theater is on to the other side of i-90 over by Taco Time[?] Please take my idea into consideration[.] Thanks

--posting on the official Issaquah, Washington, home page

 

Modesto mice: Grandaddy
Modesto mice: Grandaddy

Hardly as backwoods as hallowed Aberdeen, yet less cosmopolitan than, say, Tacoma, the Seattle satellite-suburb of Issaquah splits along Gilman Avenue, the outdated alias assumed by Interstate 90 as it lumbers westward, tossing up scattered off-ramps in its wake. Plenty of room here for cars to park and roam and align bumpers in choked sprawls. Room for humans, too. Too much room, in fact, for any single person to find his place, though also too wide-open a space to ever give cover.

This is The Lonesome Crowded West. The title of the 1997 breakthrough album from suburban Washington's Modest Mouse pretty much summed up the Issaquah of the mind that post-boom American indie-rock had become. Not that you might feel alone in a crowd, but that you will. That you did. Last night even, shoulder-to-elbow in the club while distorted major-sevenths rang with hollow abandon and some tousled wraith in a Sunny Day T-shirt raised his voice from sulk to shriek onstage. Modest Mouse filled this vacuum of faith with an intriguing echo of the old, unruly punk community, and a nation of sloppy punters unfolded their arms and crossed their fingers, wondering if a cash infusion from Epic Records would encourage the band to articulate this isolation or only to increase it.

With The Moon and Antarctica, Modest Mouse stay true to their core ambivalence, rhyming for the sake of riddling, and charting a road trip to the wasteland of "Tiny Cities Made of Ashes," which might seem ominous if that title didn't rhyme with "Gonna punch you in your glasses." Similarly, lines like "I'm gonna look out the window of my color TV" or the schizoid "How do/How do you do/My name is you" bespeak a slight leaning toward Floydian stoned reveries. Singer-guitarist Issac Brock even wanders in search of answers to questions such as (in all caps, from the CD booklet) "WHERE DO CIRCLES BEGIN?"

Yet the sound of the band has expanded into a roar to be reckoned with. Brock has encased his whimper in a drawl, which seems at once desiccated and juvenile. Sounding like Doug Martsch of Built to Spill with an involuntarily twitchy wrist, Brock creates guitar fills that are less riffs than ornery fidgets. Meanwhile, bassist Eric Judy and drummer Jeremiah Green battle one another for rhythmic supremacy without losing a beat. This is why bands sell out, friends. Not for the fame. Not for the cash. Not even for the nookie. It's for the sound, the opportunity to etch your free associations on a larger canvas with big-label money and interminable studio sessions while you've still got the chance--or, as Brock quips, "Laugh hard, it's a long way to the bank."

 

It's also a long way from Issaquah to Modesto, California--850 miles if you stick to the interstates. But conceptually, the distance from The Moon and Antarctica to The Sophtware Slump (V2), by Cali kids Grandaddy, is more easily spanned. Call these discs the parallel dreams of boys lulled into preteen sleep by the traffic noise of the same nearby highway: I-5, the transportation spine of the West Coast. The differences are mostly ones of temperament: Brock peels away layers of flaky solipsism in a vain attempt to expose his inadequacies to the world. Grandaddy singer-guitarist Jason Lytle transmits waves of empathy from his bedroom seclusion into deep space, hoping for some response from beyond.

The stretches of concrete evoked by Grandaddy's 1997 debut, Under the Western Freeway, were littered with the detritus of old Casios, dust-clogged vocoders, and twittering analog relics. Since then, Lytle himself has become a literal synthesizer, channeling his music through makeshift contraptions in the spirit of his hero, Thomas Edison. On "He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot," Lytle's frail falsetto suggests both the back-porch warble of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" and the processed future rock of Young's Trans. Elsewhere, Lytle haunts a "Broken Household Appliance National Forest," where he enjoys the sight (and the sound) of "mud and metal mixing good."

Not that the residents of his technopastorale know quite what to make of their secondhand future. Take "Jed the Humanoid," a mechanical pal Lytle built from used scraps, who eventually dies of loneliness. (Even irony is of no avail. "I try to sing it/Funny like Beck," Lytle-as-Jed sings, "but it's bringing me down.") What's the point of being a cyborg if you can't shrug off pesky emotions? You wind up like the "Miner at the Dial-A-View," who languishes through a 15-year work stint on the moon, squinting through a telescope for a glimpse of his friends on Earth. Here's prog rock with no faith in progress, a longing for days of future past, with just the barest hope hidden in its jerry-built charm.

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