Monday, January 18, 2021

CD Odyssey Disc 1442: The Grapes of Wrath

This is the second time in three albums I’ll be reviewing a Canadian rock record released in 1991 (earlier it was Rush’ “Roll the Bones”).

Disc 1442 is…. These Days

Artist: The Grapes of Wrath

Year of Release: 1991

What’s up with the Cover?  A classic early nineties cover, featuring the band wearing “we don’t even really care how we dress because we’re not obsessed with being pretentious rock star” clothes, with expressions to match.

The early nineties were a good time for men’s hair. Lots of long flowing locks like the seventies, except this time we had product to keep it smooth and silky.

How I Came To Know It: This album used to belong to my roommate Greg. Greg and I didn’t share a lot of musical overlap back in the days, but we both loved music. We also loved beer and we were usually broke as hell. In particularly band months, we’d resort to selling our less-loved CDs back to the record store (back in the day a CD could fetch you a cool $7). “These Days” was on of Greg’s albums and in one broke week, he decided he was going to part with it.

I was aghast, as this was one of the records of his that I liked the most. I offered him $9 for it – more than he’d get from the record store, but less than I’d pay for it at the record store. Also, probably all I had in loose change at the time of the transaction. It was a win-win, and he agreed. Thirty years later, it’s still here.

How It Stacks Up: This is my only Grapes of Wrath album, so it can’t stack up. I’ll probably check out a couple more now that the CD Odyssey has reminded me that they exist, but I have no idea how it will go.

Ratings: 3 stars

Much like how you can’t hear your own accent, it is hard as a Canadian to quantify what “Canadian rock” sounds like, but I sense “These Days” is it. The Grapes of Wrath’s third studio album has a rich, rolling groove that is mostly rock and roll but with a hint of Gordon Lightfoot guitar strum and a touch of Blue Rodeo keyboard. It’s got some heft to it, and more than a little of that woe-is-me quality that 1991 was known for, but it’s not aggressive.

That maudlin element was a significant part of my attraction to this record when I first heard it in my early twenties. It was anthemic enough to make your heart soar, but sad enough to also make you pine, and we all need to pine from time to time.

The first element of the record’s success is the way Grapes of Wrath’s vocals blended together. Rarely do you hear a single voice, and the harmonies they lean on are so tight I had to go check some live footage to be sure they weren’t just looping some background vocals back into the mix.

This tight “chorus all the time” also gives many of these songs a participatory quality. You want to join in and sing along because you’d just be another voice in the choir. I did it multiple times in the car, in fact, and to all those looking at me askance at red lights I say this – I regret nothing.

All this ambient sound results in no rough edges, and while this record is apparently more “heavy” than previous efforts, I didn’t find it heavy at all. It is a very light lilt, with a lot of layered sound that lets you sink in and float along. I wasn’t taken with the musicianship, but the songs aren’t constructed to show off a bunch of virtuoso guitar bits. Instead, it’s an orchestral sound without the orchestra.

Lyrically, the album will always have a bigger impact on me because I heard it during a critical and emotional part of my life. I don’t play it nearly as often “these days” but when I do it always takes me back there. The album’s hits and deep cuts are all equally familiar, and sad little ditties like “No Reason” are still just as sad for me as they ever were. Tunes like “Travelin’” with uncertain lyrics like:

“Is this all I've waited for
Or is this just another trip

“Am I in the best of life
Or am I just a travelin' still?

Evoke old doubts and make me briefly wonder where I’m at on my journey, until all those years of experience kick in and I remember, “oh yeah, life always feels like this from time to time” and I calm down and just enjoy the trip down memory lane.

While I like the deep cuts on as much as the hits, the album does fade a little in its final three songs, particularly the plodding 6:24 final track “Miracle” which has a very long noodle fade that does not add anything to the record.

For all that, “These Days” holds up well. Thirty years later it manages to still sound fresh, while at the same time being the familiar old friend it has always been.

Best tracks: Away, You May Be Right, I Am Here, No Reason, Travelin

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