The Golden State that emerges in the title track to Admiral Radley's debut album, I Heart California, is not the stuff of picture postcards, Hollywood or the Beach Boys. That much is evident by the end of the delicately sung first verse:
“Drugs fall out of diaper bags/while Midwesterners stare.”
No, right down the buoyant, twinkling chorus — punctuated as it is by a distorted voice reciting “I love California” in a mock Governator accent — “I Heart California” maps out the emotional landscape ahead: playful yet melancholy, biting yet tender.
The album's wildly diverse 11 tracks are the offspring of the musical marriage of two long-running indie bands: Admiral Radley is Jason Lytle and Aaron Burtch of Grandaddy, and Aaron Espinoza and Ariana Murray of Earlimart.
Birthed six years ago as an idea for a fan EP, the project set sail last year with recording sessions at Espinoza's Los Angeles studio, the Ship, which is also the name of his freshly minted imprint, which will release the album on July 13.
In many ways, Ad Rad owes it all to the Other California.
Not only is some of the quartet's music informed by the principal songwriters' backgrounds in the Central Valley — Lytle is from Modesto, Espinoza from Fresno — but that commonality spawned their friendship. Now, as veterans of tours, career highs and lows, and probably a beer or three, they're fast friends, liable to finish each other's sentences and crack each other up with Everyman barbs.
“In the Earlimart house, we fell in love with this little band from Modesto,” Espinoza remembers. “We heard Grandaddy was opening for Grant Lee Buffalo at the Palace, but there was no way we could afford to go. So Ariana decides to play the Central Valley card and calls the Grandaddy manager at the time, who was probably some weird just-got-out-of-jail skateboarder guy …”
Lytle: “He did skateboard, and I actually went to jail with him one time.”
Espinoza: “Anyway, we got on the list, totally stalked Jason and struck up a conversation.”
Lytle: “I guess when I heard 'Central Valley,' I thought, 'Nice. Somebody to share the grief with.' ”
Eventually, Grandaddy became embedded in Earlimart's Silver Lake world, and during a break in each band's action in 2004, they did what Espinoza suggested: “Let's get together, drink some beer and make a few songs.”
But those initial tracks only collected dust. Grandaddy added one more album to its critically admired discography before Lytle broke up the band and moved to Montana. Earlimart made a couple more good (if undersupported) albums while Espinoza kept busy as a producer.
Finally, in 2009, “we found this golden nugget of time,” says Murray. “It was a perfect little scenario — you're in a room together making some noise and seeing how your friends work.”
The bands' sonic common ground — effects and otherworldly noises run through both Grandaddy's space pop and Earlimart's folkier compositions — made the collaboration a natural fit. The results are at once beautiful and weird.
“A fun record with serious moments,” Espinoza says. “We call it Christopher Cross meets Weird Al Yankovic.”
“We have similar senses of humor,” Lytle says, “and at one point I thought, 'Is this gonna turn into our own little version of Ween?' I mean, they did a good job of making their inside jokes universal, so that concern turned into a quest for balance.”
Which is how, wedged between the subtext-loaded title track and “Sunburn Kids” — a wacky, '80s-inspired romp that might be the only song ever to lyrically link Iceland and Toledo — there is the Espinoza-penned “Ghost of Syllables,” with its breathy vocals and big sighs of melody. “Lonesome Co.” and “Ending of Me” tug the heartstrings, and Murray's “The Thread” weaves in some nifty poetry: “The road ahead/is like a thread/still attached to the unknown.”
In Ad Rad's own off-kilter way it is a “California album” — a notion that induces bemused smiles from Lytle and Espinoza. On the title track, after all, Lytle sings romantically about “long walks on the 5” as if the freeway were a beach.
“Jason wrote that after [Irish band] the Thrills came out with their 'California album,' ” Espinoza says. “Backlit coastal pictures, songs like 'Big Sur' and 'Santa Cruz' … Jason was, like, 'Screw that.' ”
“It was a nice way to get one more little plug in for our unique part of California,” Lytle says, smiling knowingly at Espinoza.
“Long walks on the 5 … ,” the Earlimart frontman says, as if on cue.
Finishes Lytle: “Holding a red gas can.”
Admiral Radley performs a free show on Thursday, July 8, at the Hammer Museum as part of the “Also I Like to Rock” series.