So the old-timers are finally going into retirement. After 14 years of faithful service, four (or five if you count A Pretty Mess By This One Band) albums and countless EPs and compilations, Modesto’s best band head off into the sunset, leaving one final farewell behind, the sprawling, epic Just Like the Fambly Cat, an album that some may regard as their crowning opus, a fitting sendoff for the band who was fronted by a bearded skateboarder, danced with a bear in their “Crystal Lake” video, sang of corporate outings and sad robots and put the California Central Valley (aside from Pavement’s beloved Stockton) on the rock `n’ roll map.
If this all sounds a bit bittersweet, it’s because that’s exactly how the album is. Though vibrant and colorful as any of their older material, Cat sounds like a goodbye, one with many hugs and tears. And many of the songs seem to reflect this idea. “Jeez Louise” in spite of being a hard-rocking raveup, touches upon nostalgia and longing, and the bummer in the summer vibe of broken adolescent love: “your mom crashed in and she said/he’s not the one for you/yeah your mom, she always hated me/grab your keys, your clothes, your shoes/Jeez, Louise, you should have avoided me.”
The song that follows similarly follows a trail of loneliness and despair, and its title, “Summer…It’s Gone,” seems to sum it up best, though still sounds celebratory in its spacey fuzz rock arrangement. “Rear View Mirror,” as well, continues to look back with a sigh and a vocoder, but still erupts to punchy, anthemic heights. Much to the contrary of the subtle pop flavors of Sumday (an absolutely gorgeous album that’s gotten a bad rap, if you ask me), Cat seems to push toward arena rock largesse at times, and because of Grandaddy’s avoidance of any obvious wankery, it mostly works. Though slower numbers like “The Animal World” and “Where I’m Anymore,” with its smile-inducing chorus of meows, have their charms as well.
With four songs cruising past six minutes, it’s nice to hear a snotty one-minute punk blast like “50%” (and it’s promise of “fifty per cent less words“) break up the more Floyd-influenced journeys. Yet, Just Like the Fambly Cat is also burdened with the same problems that have plagued hip-hop for years: unnecessary intros, outros and segues. None of them are bad, so to speak, just not essential, though “What Happened…” and its repetitive question “what happened to the family cat?” from a curious/sad child becomes more than a little unsettling.
Despite twists and turns through stadium rock, stoned ballads and instrumentals, the album seems to pick up more steam as it goes along, the final third being, by far, the best part of the album. Beginning with the peppy, quirky “Elevate Myself,” Grandaddy return to what they do best: spaced-out but catchy power pop, weird but warm and fuzzy. Likewise, “Campershell Dreams” finds Lytle lending comfort with the line “you don’t have to be alone anymore,” off-setting many of the album’s otherwise heartbreaking moments. The synth-heavy “Disconnecty” finds Lytle delivering a bouncy, sing-songy sort of nursery rhyme among the distortion. And “This is How It Always Starts,” placed at the end of the album interestingly enough, is one of the band’s most beautiful songs, finding them walking into the California sunset one last time, delivering repeated cries of “oh, shit,” along the way.
There’s both joy and sadness in Just Like the Fambly Cat, as there is on any farewell set. But with this final burst of energy and emotion, Grandaddy have made clear that they broke up at the right time, never allowing themselves the opportunity to descend into mediocrity. It’s still sad to see them go, but darned if it wasn’t a hell of a good run.