Lately I have been plagued by interesting technological failures. It is possible that these things have always happened to me, but for some reason now I notice them, but I doubt that. Here’s the latest brilliant mistake: my phone’s Google Music app plays The Sophtware Slump: Deluxe Edition out of order, collapsing the two discs into a single disc. I have come to prefer it this way. Here is the sequence as far as Google Music is concerned:
- Discarded Pilot Intro
- He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot
- Hewlett’s Daughter
- Our Dying Brains
- Jed the Humanoid
- The Crystal Lake
- Wives of Farmers
- Chartsengrafs (Original Demo)
- N. Blender
- Underneath the Weeping Willow
- Broken Household Appliance National Forest
- Wonder Why in L.A.
- Air Conditioners in the Woods
- Jed’s Other Poem (Beautiful Ground)
- E. Knievel Interlude (The Perils of Keeping It Real)
- Moe Bandy Mountaineers
- First Movement / Message Send
- Miner At the Dial-A-View
- So You’ll Aim Toward the Sky
- Beautiful Ground (Original Cassette Tape Demo)
- Street Bunny
- What Can’t Be Erased (Drinking Beer In the Bank of America With Two Chicks From Tempe)
- I Don’t Want to Record Anymore
- Aisle Seat 37-D
- Hewlett’s Daughter (Original Cassette Tape Demo)
- Rode My Bike to My Stepsister’s Wedding
Grandaddy is one of those bands that slipped by me when they were doing their best work. I had heard of them here and there, usually when people tried to compare OK Computer or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to something else. But when I heard the excellent Danger Mouse / Sparklehorse / David Lynch + everyone collaboration Dark Night of the Soul, I flipped for the Jason Lytle track, and I started my usual process of getting into an artist: start at the beginning, listen to everything. I got Grandaddy’s Under the Western Freeway first, which is good but not earth-shattering. Spotify had just become available around that time, and at first Grandaddy was not available there, but then a few weeks later The Sophtware Slump showed up, in its original single disc form. I listened to it for a few days in a row and was hooked. I remembered reading about the recently released deluxe edition so I picked it up on Amazon MP3—the deluxe edition was not available on Spotify at that time, though it is now—and that’s how I got to the situation I am writing about today.
2011 was a pretty good year for expanded reissues. One of my favorites is Springsteen’s The Promise, which is a huge outtake collection from the sessions that produced Darkness on the Edge of Town, his most cohesive and honed-down effort. I watched the documentary film about The Promise last year, where much is made of Springsteen’s obsession with creating a record about confronting the realities and compromises we face as we get older, a single-mindedness that drove him to discard, shelve, or give away great pop songs that would not fit into the concept. Listening to The Sophtware Slump luxe and redux, many of the assertions made about The Promise also fit Jason Lytle’s masterpiece on a different theme (old loneliness in a new world). In the deluxe edition, you hear some amazing songs that were left on the cutting room floor, almost enough for an album by themselves. These are the rare gems that music freaks and superfans crave, usually that one track on the bootleg or box set that was inexplicably left unreleased. By my count, this deluxe edition has five: “Our Dying Brains,” “Moe Bandy Mountaineers,” “What Can’t Be Erased,” “I Don’t Want to Record Anymore,” and “Aisle Seat 37-D.” These songs are as good or better than many of the rote name checks you hear when people talk about stellar outtakes (from Bob Dylan’s Anthology, “Blind Willie McTell,” from Bruce Springsteen’s The Promise, “The Promise,” or from Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Sessions bootleg, “Venus Stopped the Train”). When it comes to the track listing of the original Sophtware Slump, the songs that made the cut were clearly those that had one foot in late nineties California and the other on a distant future planet. This is the greatness of The Sophtware Slump, that it bridges these worlds so elegantly. But the greatness of this deluxe edition is that it shows you much more clearly what it was like to be that young musician living in California making a masterpiece. Lytle has famously described the making of his The Sophtware Slump in characteristically modest and self-deprecating terms, he was in “boxer shorts, bent over keyboards with sweat dripping off my forehead, frustrated, hungover, and trying to call my coke dealer.”
It serves my point well to mention Springsteen’s song “The Promise” one more time. The song tells of the fates of the dreamers from Born to Run, in particular Terry (Bruce’s analogue), a rock musician chasing that “million dollar sound.”Both Springsteen and Lytle were that guy, but on opposite coasts, a generation apart, with a multimillion dollar differential between them. Terry is a hard working regular guy, making sacrifices and compromises to hold on to his dream. You don’t see Lytle’s analogue clearly in the original album, but he is clear as day in the deluxe edition, especially on “I Don’t Want to Record Anymore,” “What Can’t Be Erased,” and “Rode My Bike To My Stepsister’s Wedding.” A nearly defeated, totally isolated man continues to chase beauty, going just to the point of communicating with others but always stopping short. You see Lytle much more clearly than you’ll ever see Springsteen, especially in songs like “I Don’t Want to Record Anymore” or “Rode My Bike to My Stepsister’s Wedding.”
By at least one measure (mastication by music critics), the biggest expanded edition to come out in the last year was Brian Wilson’s The SMiLE Sessions, a further exploration of Brian Wilson’s 1968 supposed masterpiece left uncompleted or at least unreleased for almost forty years. But The SMiLE Sessions isn’t just an unshelved recording, in fact it is the second (or third) time that tracks from SMiLE have been released. Just after SMiLE was completed by Brian Wilson and The Wondermints and then released in 2004, I had the pleasure of sharing a long train ride with pianist/laser physicist/suspected cyborg Jonathan Fisher where we got to talk about the record in some detail. Jon’s take on the record was “it is like listening to a great artist’s sketchbook.” Unfortunately for Wilson, great albums are not usually sketchbooks, and my feeling about the record was blunt disappointment. I wanted an improvement on (or at least continuation of) Pet Sounds, a fantastic band playing brilliant arrangements behind supernaturally gifted singers singing great lyrics. SMiLE is none of those things, and I find its unifying concept (chronological history of the United States) and the lyrics that execute that concept to be unbelievably irritating. Where am I going with this? How did I get home? Who has my bike?
The original Sophtware Slump feels like a sketchbook, by design, evident from the very start of the album with the false starts and reiterations that intentionally mar “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot.” But once the deluxe edition tracks are added into the track list—erroneously scattered into place by Google Music—this feeling of listening to a great artist’s sketchbook becomes unavoidable, and works to the deluxe edition’s great advantage. Within the first two tracks (“Discarded Pilot Intro” and “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot”) you hear an eight count, version one of the song, then “OK, here we go,” a four count, version two of the song, “Are you ready? OK”, another four count, version three of the song, an interlude, and finally version four of the song. For some, this might be too much, but I’m telling you man, it works.
With so much repetition and foregrounding of the musician in the song intros, I am reminded of listening to The Genuine Basement Tapes, the five CD bootleg version of Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes. Those tracks are ordered by song, with different takes side by side, so you hear different versions of the same song three times in a row. But where that collection feels like an Alan Lomax catalog, The Sophtware Slump: Deluxe Edition manifests as a carefully organized set of communiques, collected and transmitted even though its author had no confidence that there was anyone listening on the other side of the line. I encourage you to pick up the transmission, you might just find a collection that stands with the best of them.