Sarah Tudzin is a music producer/engineer, burrito aficionado, and pretty good listener. She also fronts Los Angeles’ own tenderpunk outfit, illuminati hotties. When she is not yelling about expertly crafted sounds or the movie Top Gun, she is crying about lyrical turns of phrase or cute cats with very short legs.
(Photo Credit: Kristy Benjamin)
It’s 8 AM on a Tuesday in October. It’s already 80 degrees in Los Angeles, yet a light layer of fog and snow blankets the skate park bowl where I’m sitting on a lip, dangling my feet above the graffiti and dirt, absorbing Great Grandpa’s Four of Arrows for the third time in a row today. Bands from Seattle have a particular way of conjuring cool haze despite their listener’s surroundings, and Great Grandpa is no exception.
On their new record, the Pacific Northwest five-piece pulls from the cards of deep familial dread, of ancestral pain that we inherit from generations past and are forced to reckon with when we least expect it. They manage to do so without ignoring the childlike joy we feel once we’ve processed unknown traumas, not unscathed, but with ever so slightly more capacity to brush the scuffs off our knees and elbows. As I hit play on listen number four of the day, I am surrounded by frosty clouds and the darkening sky of Great Grandpa’s sonic alchemy.
An impressive amount of precision and labor was applied to making Four of Arrows, an 11-song masterwork that transcends genre, making it one of the most ambitious sophomore efforts that I’ve ever laid ears on. Nothing about Four of Arrows is effortless or accidental and it’s clear that Great Grandpa, despite having formerly been cornered into the archetype of slacker-rock hotshots, have undoubtedly always cared deeply.
In the midst of modern isolation and technology, it’s rare to find such a resolutely collaborative band whose members lean upon each other for both personal and musical support. Cam Laflam and Carrie Goodwin serve as the humble backbone of Great Grandpa. They’re the immovable keepers of time on a record profoundly concerned with dimensional passage. Poised with assurance atop their rhythmic foundation, are Dylan Hanwright, the tasteful sonic wizard, and Pat Goodwin, the honorable embodiment of how to lead from the back of the room. Both of them twist through arrangement and melody, adorned by the dazzling production efforts of Mike Vernon Davis (my new personal hero). All of the aforementioned structure builds and blossoms, carving out a cradle for lyrics nimbly crooned, yelped, whispered, and warbled by Alex Menne, who drives home each track with limitless and empathic knowledge of their band members’ emotional intentions.
Four of Arrows takes its name from a tarot card Pat drew while troubled with a creative block. It is a contrary card, encouraging reflection in challenging moments where we might otherwise charge blindly ahead. It brings forth imagery of rest, preparation, organization, and perspective through solitude — taking a step back, a breath, a sip of something sweet. Tarot traces its way through the entirety of Four of Arrows, so what better way to sort my own musings on this album than through the classic three-card method of reading tarot: the past, present, and future.
THE PAST: “Dark Green Water,” “Rosalie,” “Split Up the Kids”
Much of Four of Arrows grapples with retrospection, both within a single life and the vast expanse of lives before our own. The sprawling opener, “Dark Green Water,” finds Great Grandpa reconciling perfection with regret. “I’ll reflect/I won’t ask anything but forgiveness once I have the courage to explain,” Alex pleads, speaking to the forces of immeasurable shame and fear of apologizing for an irreparable mistake. However, this is not without hope for retribution as time marches forward and we let our bygones be bygones.
The past is revisited six songs later with “Rosalie.” The main character, “a soul decomposing/a body alive,” has no agency over the past or present. We observe her fading into what once was, with no ability to halt the passage of time; how heart-wrenching it is to be a passive bystander. The past is explicitly a moment in time in which we can no longer be. “It’s like I’m hardly even there,” Alex echoes on “Split Up The Kids.” And maybe that’s the most difficult part of mortality — things happen and we have no choice but to relentlessly plod forward.
THE PRESENT: “Digger,” “English Garden,” “Mono No Aware,” “Human Condition”
The now, the most visceral sense of motion that we feel, cuts a sharp diagonal line across the expanse of Four of Arrows. In “Digger,” we are placed unassumingly in the center of the present: “a rock in retrograde / says endure pain today / all things must evolve or fade.” On one side of the spectrum things fade, on the other they evolve. When the only options are forward or backward we become paralyzed, cycling endlessly in the pain of today. Great Grandpa then offers us relief through passive observance on the shimmering “English Garden.” There is a creeping sense of purgatory while Al sings they’ve “been waiting for this… silent stillness,” as a lush arrangement sparkles beside them. On the very next track, “Mono No Aware,” we are confronted with a “failing grasp of the present memory, self and past.” This song allows us to check in with our current selves and explore how we lock into our relationships.
Sometimes in our most mindful moments, we are tempted to throw in the towel, which seems so much easier than allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to what is happening. “Human Condition” urges us to “keep on this mortal coil” even when “living is hard, hard work,” adding a conclusive reminder to the songs centered around the present.
At this point, it seems fair to take a beat to discuss the piano interlude that splits Four of Arrows in two. Entitled “Endling,” a term coined in 1996 to describe the last known being of a living species, the piece is a purposeful transition. It is a moment to digest and to anticipate. This mid-album breather represents the last of its kind, long endangered, living today, with no promise of a continued lineage. It is the hallowed junction of past, present, future.
THE FUTURE: “Bloom,” “Treat Jar,” “Mostly Here”
One of our most human abilities is that we can zoom out, look at everything that’s led up to the present moment, and make informed choices about how to move forward. We cannot predict the future, but we can attempt to plan for it and acknowledge that life’s perpetual motion will forever bring about change. On perhaps their most reassuring song, “Bloom,” Great Grandpa encourages us to “step into whatever you want to and let your spirit bloom.” The lyrics imply that there is no deadline for the learning we must do to become our own champions.
Similarly, in the uptempo “Treat Jar,” our north star is a shining quarter in a tip container, a small beacon of hope that leads us to the conclusion that we “can’t help you if [we] can’t help [ourselves].” This is a universal truism detailed further by the conversely intimate, “you’re going to have to make your own coffee now.” Great Grandpa masters this descriptive micro-macro volleying throughout the album which is illustrated again in “Mostly Here.” They drop an individual name, Paul, in the first line, and then move immediately to the widest lens in the chorus, “if life’s a dream, then I’m not sleeping, I’m not sleeping in.” This song leaves us with a laundry list of goals set for the future: “be a sweeter daughter, an honest father, a stronger brother…” but only if we choose to move through those goals with the knowledge of where we’ve been and where we are in this exact moment.
Experiencing Great Grandpa’s music gives me the gripping belief that this band would unquestionably put their own lives on the line for one another. No stone goes unturned on Four of Arrows because no band member was left to pick their way through the darkened woods of art-making alone. Everyone in Great Grandpa has a particular way of pulling close all who are privileged enough to drift by. I don’t mean that with weighty reverence as much as I do with extreme delight in watching the world fall under the enchantment of Great Grandpa in the same way I have. So, in a late-night diner nested on a hill above Echo Park Lake while Alex was in town, I embraced an opportunity to speak with them at length about creating collaborative art. Beneath all the gushing we did about the music we love, there was an unmistakable magic about Al, one that is mirrored in any of the interactions I’ve had with their fellow band members. The purity and joy with which all five of them experience their craft is evident in how they move about the world and how they have cultivated such a compelling body of work. On Four of Arrows, Great Grandpa sounds as unshakeable as ever before.
On a selfish note, I can’t thank them all enough for gifting the world this album when I so desperately needed to hear something new. Their music has yet again reached me at a time in my life when I thought there was nothing that could save me from myself. Here I am, though, hanging on to every note, every lyric, and every ambient construction that exists on this instant classic of a record. While we all listen to Four of Arrows and beat our own paths relentlessly through descending gloom and trails un-blazed, we are overwhelmed with a feeling of serenity and safety knowing that in the clearing ahead stands five steadfast archers — Alex, Pat, Carrie, Dylan, and Cam — quivers full of poignancy, bows drawn, and points locked on the approaching unknown, or perhaps, singularly upon our own hearts. Whichever we fear most.