The Grapes of Wrath's four albums between 1986 and 1991 delivered some of the finest introspective folk/rock music ever. Some songs offered up quiet guitar that hearkened back to the likes of Fairport Convention and other folk rockers, other songs offered up piano-based music that seemed Traffic-like, and yet other songs served up rock and jangle that called to mind more of a Byrds, R.E.M., or Beatles feel. The key was a sort of quiet reflection, with mood and atmosphere pervading the proceedings.
Formed in the early '80s with a nucleus of Hooper brothers Tom (bass) and Chris (drums) and Kevin Kane (vocals/guitar), Grapes of Wrath achieved success in their native Canada, landing numerous radio hits at the time. When personal and creative differences between Kane and Tom Hooper resulted in a parting of the ways, the remaining three band members (including keyboardist Vincent Jones) joined together and put out two subsequent CDs as Ginger (1994's Far Out and 1996's Suddenly I Came to My Senses). The music of Ginger continued the sound and tradition of the Grapes of Wrath, as Tom Hooper now became the sole creative force writing the music.
In 2000, a new century invited a new beginning as Kevin Kane and Tom Hooper put their differences aside and reformed the Grapes of Wrath as a trio with new drummer Matt Brain for a new CD (Field Trip) and a brief tour. The reunion, while pleasant, didn't rediscover any magic. Both men had grown apart, and when the band's label crashed, that was it for the new Grapes of Wrath.
Afterwards, Hooper headed back to his home on Saltspring Island off British Columbia and started recording some solo material and demos. He sent one along to Bullseye Records who signed him to what has become The Unexplored Cosmos, the next solo step in what has been a most productive career.
Now the whole group is Hooper (though brother Chris does drums on most tracks), and it's something he's wanted to do for a long time coming. "I really enjoy working alone," confesses Hooper, "I'm a bit of a loner anyways." He noticed how often past songs got watered down with all the compromising and group decisions of a full band.
Hooper serves up a dozen songs here, including a few reworked from the last Grapes of Wrath CD ("Sell The Goat" and "Hitchhiker") and one that dates back to the last Ginger CD ("Same Old Me").
The CD opens with "Running Out of Time", a mid-tempo number with strong bass that urges for hanging on and doing what's right: "If it's gone then what's to miss, let's not get all the way and make new promises / We had a dream sealed with a kiss and now we have to find another way to live".
"Same Old Me" is the first single from the CD. Again, a strong bass line drives the percussion and melody, while slightly recessed vocals work to garner your attention in a song about pleading against a lover's exit to a far away place: "I don't want you to leave, say you won't go / I try to be the same old me, I hear your sorrows, fill your needs / I'll do the dishes so maybe one day you'll want me back with you again".
Perhaps the most infectious cut here is "Cardboard Man", a song that gradually builds into the discovery and promise of unexpected love after one thought it was all over: "If you were mine I would make you feel no one else is real / Give me a sign, I would leave this stand where I've waited here for you / I was melting in the rain, I was fading in the sun / I thought that I was done, but maybe you're the one".
Hooper ventures into psychedelic territory with "Try to Believe Me", a pretty and atmospheric song that, true to its musical roots, asks for honesty and open speech ("but try to believe me / No, life's never easy").
"Fade Away" starts with a pleasant acoustic guitar that leads into a song that takes little time segments verse by verse as time fades away, first about approaching intimacy, then about leaving the relationship, promising to write and then thinking back about possible anger (never having written).
Hooper gives us banjo as background flavor in the preaching yet pleasant "Sell the Goat", wherein a friend tries to change another's mind: "Sell the goat, build your fortunes, you / Spare the load, pass the buck, you choose / To buy your love, it all reflects on you".
An unexpected treat here (and the only cover) is Hooper's faithful rendition of George Harrison's "Long Long Long". Not only is this a poignant tribute, it serves to remind us all of the great treasures George left behind -- this is a hauntingly beautiful song and much overlooked.
Hooper employs lots of different arrangements and instruments in a subtle yet effective way. This is most apparent after several listens. "Souvenir" uses piano and phasing effects to heighten its somewhat eclectic poetic lyrics: "The situation / Imagination / There's no excuse, it's instantly a game / The conversation / the combination / I tell the truth / My feelings still remain".
While Hooper writes music that grows and shows itself over time, he also manages to convey great stories with his words. "Distant World" tells a wonderful tale of a third wheel who wishes he were the main player, instead of the friendly "go-to" guy. Still, he remains the close friend in the distant world, so close and yet so far. Hooper's graceful song captures the frustration of the situation perfectly.
In "Hitchhiker", Hooper tells of the difficulties of escaping from one's self: "Checking out tonight / Turn myself off for a while / I can leave my thoughts behind or so I thought until I realized / Anyone can tell you, anyone can see, anyone can notice that I'm dying here".
Hooper's background as bass player leads to some fine songwriting. Check out the great bass line in the soulful "Try Too Hard", a spare and slower arrangement that sets a bluesy mood. Repetition of musical phrasings becomes almost hypnotic in "Sleepy Dream" and manages to hide the lyrical facts -- this is a nightmare about drowning.
Mostly recorded in Randy Bachman's studio, these 12 songs are a real treat for any fans of the Grapes of Wrath or Ginger and then some. Hooper knows that his quietly reflective "thinking man's music" is not likely to take the current Canadian music scene by storm, but he's not overly concerned. He seems happy with the music he's created, and knows that's what matters even more so than sales (not that he wouldn't mind selling lots). This is a CD that is subtle and special -- if you have time for Tom Hooper, he'll show you the wonders contained within The Unexplored Cosmos.