Review Summary: Why’s Granpaw fumbling with his shotgun with that distant look in his watery eyes…
Grandaddy had a certain scruffy mongrel charm but by 2006 they were looking a little long in the tooth and deteriorating fast; always a self-aware act, this self-confessed small band knew only too well that their race was almost run and that ‘Fambly Cat’ would be their last hurrah. In the space of three previous albums the band had successfully carved out a unique musical territory somewhere between the twee pastoral feel of Sparklehorse and the grandiose cosmic vibes of the Flaming Lips. Lyrically they shared some common ground with Isaac Brock only here instead of the Modest Mouse theme of ‘man in awe of the cosmos / in conflict with the march of progress’ Jason Lytle applies a slight twist to end up more along the lines of ‘man in awe of nature / in conflict with technology’. The issue with creating such a specific niche of course is that once you’ve perfected the formula, as the band arguably achieved on their second album ‘The Sophtware Slump’, then where else is there left to explore.
On their third album, 2003’s ‘Sumday’, Grandaddy decided to buff up and polish their sound and recorded their sleekest set of tunes; in the process some of their ramshackle charm was lost. Here you can hear the band attempting to redress that imbalance by purposefully toning down their approach in places and throwing in some more experimental work; unfortunately once again their efforts have only served to diminish the successes of the previous album, despite all their good intentions.
The first half of ‘Fambly Cat’ is made up of three 5 minute+ epics and three more experimental tracks but what all these songs have in common is that they each outstay their welcome by at least a minute. Grandaddy always had a slacker aesthetic but it’s only now that that the band cross the line into sounding flat-out tired; it’s a pacing disaster as where the band used to balance a long drawn out coda on one number by placing something snappy next to it in the track order here they just plough on into yet another sleepy, overstretched composition. The greatest weakness in Lytle’s song writing has always been an over-reliance on wordless ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ and on 'Fambly Cat' they're legion; put bluntly, there’s more padding here than in all the band’s lumberjack jacket wardrobes combined.
The second half of the album is much improved and although the songs remain slightly over-long the pacing issue is less obvious as the differences between style and tone are emphasised; this time half the songs fall under the bracket of ‘near joke songs’ and the remaining three can be classed as ‘weepies’. The former three are hit and miss; '50%' is borderline unlistenable but ‘Elevate Myself’ and ‘Disconnecty’ impress, balancing their peppy spirit with the underlying sad sacks atmosphere of the album as a whole. Of course the tearjerker tunes don’t need to suppress their sadness and as a result these songs stand out as easily ‘Fambly Cat’s best; in particular the mournful, reflective ‘Campershell Dreams’ and the emotional farewell ‘This is How it Always Starts’ can be counted among the band’s very best of the style, right up there with the ‘Sophtware Slump’ trio of ‘Underneath the Weeping Willow’, ‘Miner at the Dial-A-View’ and ‘So You’ll Aim Towards the Sky’.
While ‘Fambly Cat’ is a worthy enough addition to the Grandaddy discography there's no shaking the feeling that they chose to split up at the correct time; there’s already ample evidence of the band repeating themselves and while it might seem like poetry for this group of nature boys to embrace recycling their own music it’s probably best that they chose to compost themselves down for good. For newbies this album would be the absolute worst starting point but for established fans this disc provides closure; to be affected by the sad plight of the family cat you’ve got to already be part of the same family after all.