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Aside from your multiplatinum Tracy Chapman records, acoustic folk albums aren't exactly Top 40 fodder in this post-Peter, Paul, and Mary age. The Grapes of Wrath want to change that. The Vancouver quartet follows Chapman's lead with its new album, Now and Again, which contains several songs that wouldn't have sounded out of place at New York's legendary Folk City circa 1965.
Now and Again tracks like "All the Things I Wasn't" combine thoughtful guitar strumming, willowy melodies and vocals so delicate that they almost out-wuss vintage Donovan. The album never degenerates into parody, though. Not one person in the band wears a beret, and the lyrics always steer clear of beat poetry. Best of all, these neo-folk minstrels manage to inject enough creativity into their languid melodies to keep listeners from nodding off.
In a music scene dominated by macho pelvis-thrusters, a band like the Grapes that's not afraid to show a softer side is something of a find. Still, Wrath drummer Chris Hooper admits in a recent phone interview that the band's ultragenteel sound isn't likely to win over many headbangers. "It's a bit frustrating when you look at MTV and see bands like Skid Row," sighs Hooper in an accent eerily reminiscent of SCTV's McKenzie brothers. "You think, `Oh God, we're not going to get seen or heard anywhere.' But we don't worry about it. We don't think of this as a reaction against anything. It was just something that we'd always wanted to do, the sound we've always wanted to get."
Even listeners whose tastes lean more toward power chords and electronic dance beats might find themselves acknowledging the beauty of "All the Things I Wasn't," Now and Again's leadoff cut. The intoxicating song, which singer-guitarist Kevin Kane has said "could have been on a Nick Drake album," is achingly emotional without turning weepy. Almost as good is " . . . But I Guess We'll Never Know," graced by some of the most sumptuous male harmonizing since Simon and Garfunkel.
As likable as the Wrath's fragile folk-pop murmurings are, the burning question remains: Are these mild-mannered musicians harbingers of a kinder, gentler Nineties pop or just victims of the Sensitive Male syndrome?
Just bringing up the wimp factor makes Hooper bristle. "I think that there's a difference between `wimpy' and music that's just quieter," argues the drummer. "Because you can be quiet and still be really powerful in what you're getting across. You know, I think some of the wimpiest stuff is just noise."
Hooper admits that he used to be one of those wimpy noise-mongers himself. The nucleus of the group--Hooper, Kane, and Hooper's brother Tom (the group's vocalist-bassist)--performed in several Canadian thrash-sludge bands like Kill Pigs and Gentlemen of Horror in their moshin' boyhood. "We played as fast and as loud as possible back then," the drummer remembers fondly.
But Hooper got bored of always sacrificing melody for warp-speed and began listening to the platters that were always spinning on his family's hi-fi back in the Sixties--the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and even the silky commercial pop of Burt Bacharach. "We just flipped around and went back to the music we grew up listening to," explains the stickman.
Instead of being Beatlesque, the G of W's first two LPs, 1985's September Bowl of Green and 1987's Treehouse, were full of big, chiming guitars, lush melodies and sometimes arcane lyrics. In other words, the band was cranking out conventional, R.E.M.- indebted guitar-rock.
Chris Hooper claims the more original, all-acoustic format on several of Now and Again's cuts is largely thanks to him. "I said, `Hey, this sounds cool with just guitars and singing,'" recalls the drummer. "`Maybe I shouldn't play on it.'" But does Hooper ever feel left out on those acoustic numbers come show time? "No, not at all. I'm able to take a break and listen to the band."
Despite the Grapes' acoustic conversion, Hooper makes it a point to add that "there's some heavier stuff on the LP, too." But the drummer acknowledges that it's the coffee house folk that's garnering the band the most kudos--and flak. "I guess overall it is a bit . . . introspective or whatever the corny word is that people use to describe it," figures Hooper. "But I don't care. Some of my favorite groups are really mellow. I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of."