The first album since 1991 from the fully reunited original members of this Canadian folk-rock/alternative group is a great return, if not a pretty good return to form.
And you thought My Bloody Valentine took a long time to release albums? Well, platinum-selling Canadian alternative folk-rock trio the Grapes of Wrath hasn’t put out a record with its original line-up intact since 1991. Yes, there was a record in 2000 (Field Trip) on a short-lived indie label, but that album only featured two of the original members, vocalist/guitarist Kevin Kane and vocalist/bassist Tom Hooper, with drummer Chris Hooper noticeably absent from the proceedings. So consider their new record, High Road, to have just as long of a gestation period as m b v if you want, as all three members are now back in action. Fans might have thought they’d never see this day, considering that the band broke up rather acrimoniously in 1992 (for a full account, please see the book Have Not Been the Same – The Canrock Renaissance, 1985-1995), and, by the end, were only speaking to each other through management and had sequestered themselves into separate camps on their tour bus. But, as the Tea Party and Big Wreck have learned, dar’s gold in dem der hills of reunions, so the Grapes are back in action.
To those who are unfamiliar with the Grapes of Wrath, they were one of Canada’s most successful major label alt-rock bands of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and helped pave the way for the sound and international success of Sarah McLachlan. Their last album, 1991’s These Days, was even recorded at the famed Abbey Road Studios with producer John Leckie, who had worked with John Lennon and George Harrison early on in his career. Even members of XTC played on the record, so it really appeared as though the Grapes of Wrath were going somewhere and attracting all sorts of admirers, before it all came to a crashing halt. If you have to describe their sound, someone once told me that the Grapes of Wrath were the kind of band you would, if you were a red-blooded, white Canadian male, want to have playing on the hi-fi when you’ve brought over a woman of a certain age (one who remembers the band) to your apartment and really wanted to impress her. The reason is that the music is somewhat soft and inoffensive, and there are gorgeous harmonies to be had. However, designating the Grapes of Wrath as a “chick’s band” would not only be somewhat derogatory but dishonest. There’s stuff for guys to love about this group, whether it’s the brutal honesty of depicting small-town life (“Backward Town”) or just weepy baroque ballads that’ll make you fall before your speakers at the power of the majestic beauty (“All the Things I Wasn’t”). And if you don’t have a copy of 1989’s countrified Now and Again, perceived as the high-water mark for the group, do yourself a favor and see if you can track down a copy. It’s great.
Anyway, High Road is a further continuation of the harder-edge sound that the group had mined on These Days, just with a touch of ‘70s AM Gold references and a jangle rock sound that’s reminiscent of such luminaries as the dB’s, mid-period R.E.M. and Michael Penn. Listening to this record, it’s almost as though this is the natural progression of sound that the band wanted to make following These Days. And, as such, the band appears to be in a contrite mood. The opening song “Good to See You” is almost like a Valentine to the group's long-suffering fans, with lines like, “I’ve been high / I’ve been low / Funny to see how the years just come and go / It’s been a long time but it’s sure good to see you.” And the very Beatles-esque “None Too Soon” even seems to address the group’s initial split: something that “we used to say / Crosses my mind almost every day / Maybe it’s that kind of thing / Better to say face to face again.” But the group is even acknowledging the brute realities of Canadian living, too. “Mexico” is all about flying south for the winter, just to get away from the oppressive cold and bleakness: “I love my northern home / I like Christmas, too / But after three dark months / I wanna feel the sun / I wanna have some fun.”
High Road is a remarkably consistent album from the group, with the first seven tracks ranking up there with the group’s previous highs. The acoustic ballad “Take On the Day” sounds exactly like the kind of song the Grapes would make in 1989, and its follow-up “Broken” is another fine take on a rocky retro sound that reminds listeners how these guys got Beatles comparisons back in the day. Perhaps the album’s biggest surprise is “I’m Lost (I Miss You)”, a Rhodes-piano led ballad that sounds exactly like the sweeping and saccharine ballads that the Carpenters used to make, star-crossed with 10cc’s biggest hit, “I’m Not In Love”, complete with overdubbed choral backing. Comparing the Grapes of Wrath to the Carpenters might be a very odd thing, but the group more than successfully pulls off the transition. If this album falters in any way, it’s when the group reaches out and tries to sound a bit more contemporary, or tries sounds that aren’t really fitting for the band. “Picnic” is the kind of dance track that you’d get if you crossed the Pet Shop Boys with the bass-heavy sound of New Order, and the end result will have listeners wishing that the group kept this sort of thing to the British. Alternatively, “Make It OK” sounds like an early ‘70s David Bowie song mixed with the Bay City Rollers, and it, too, sounds like something that would be better served on the cutting room floor. And final song “Sad Melodies” is a Neil Young-meets-barroom saloon acoustic guitar ballad that doesn’t quite stick in the way the band probably hoped it would.
Despite all that, the remainder of High Road is up to high standards, and there’s track after track of good to great songs. What’s more, it really sounds like the guys in the band are having a whale of a time, and clicking as though their friendships never eroded in the first place. Many reunion albums can be disappointing, or be simply retreads of what made a group great originally, but High Road deftly marries the old with something of a new sound for the group, and it all feels pretty astounding. It is indeed a feeling of contentment to have these guys back in the saddle, and I’m hopeful that this will only be the start of a fired up career, and one that might hopefully earn the band some more admirers internationally, should such things come to pass and the album gets a wide distribution. (The band is currently signed to a small Toronto indie label, which must be a comedown after being on Capitol in Canada and the U.S., and EMI in Europe, Australia and Japan.) What’s more, this album does serve a great utility, much to the chagrin of those who might want to detract me from writing what I’m about to write. If you put this record on in your home or apartment when you have a visiting lass of a certain age who remembers this group, chance are that you may get laid. Say what you will, but as a red-blooded, white, Canadian male, I think that’s probably the highest commendation I can give the reunited Grapes of Wrath.