The Grapes of Wrath – Now and Again (1989)
In surveying jangle-pop albums, calling an album great makes allowance for more uninspired tracks than on most other genre releases. Like early ‘50s rock albums by groups like the Everly Brothers – who inspired many of them – they are slipshod assemblies of 45s and tracks produced to sound faintly like those 45s. They’re nevertheless redeemed by a number of great tracks, with a prevalent level of tolerating the mediocrity. Production is of the essence. Overly polished production, such as that on early Posies releases or Matthew Sweet’s otherwise excellent Girlfriend, can give one headaches.
Coming before the pixie-stick sweetness of later jangle like the Gigolo Aunts, The Grapes of Wrath had as much a right to be remembered in the great jangle-pop sweepstakes as contemporary bands like The Reivers or Let’s Active, and probably are just as remembered (but only in their native Canada). This is one of those little shames. Not quite Iraq war shameful or credit-default swap shameful, but much of the fun in rock writing is the gratuitous lamenting (and the related masturbatory self-reflexive dives into pontificating on the finer points of album-reviewing protocol, that vain attempt to run away from just writing “this is catchy” again). So let’s wallow!
Now and Again is an album front-loaded with four of jangle pop’s-greatest moments; it’s bathed in softly faked British accents, acoustic hooks, and vague complaints about even vaguer women. Album-opener “All the Things I Wasn’t” is a break-up song. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear if Beck listened to it repeatedly before recording Mutations or Sea Change. The producer is restrained to acoustic guitar and string accents, not obscuring the melody in the trebly wash that has sunk many a great jangle record, as it sinks much of the middle of Now and Again.
“What Was Going Through My Head” continues the proto-“Mutations” vibe, and is the track which best manages to synthesize the swirl of Translator/Crowded House/Jayhawks “sorta sounds country-ish but also sounds like the Beatles” thoughts inspired by the album, while managing a single as good as any of those bands’ best. It seems telling the album’s two best songs are also their shortest. I stand wholly behind the 3-minute mark for pop songs, unless the songwriter is a brilliant lyricist.
The other two major highlights of Now and Again are “Most” and “Hiding”. “Most” features a Smiths-like retreat from a melodic idea to allow for solo crooning at the end of each phrase in the verse. It’s a single overproduced in a strangely forward looking way, prefiguring the power-pop which dominated early ‘90s supermarket and sitcom themes, and later ‘90s dollar bins. The hook saves it though.
“Hiding” features a melody showing the difference a decent production can make. A melody which wouldn’t have been out of place on a Something Corporate record (and I’m pretty sure did, though I’m not enough of a masochist to check) is rendered infectious by economical use of organ and an energetic performance.
It seems there was a wee bit more to Canadian music than Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and “Sweet City Woman”. Not enough to move there, but enough to keep hungry music blog readers sated.
RIYL: The Jayhawks, Translator, Gigolo Aunts, The Reivers, Let’s Active, The dB’s, Aztec Camera, Lloyd Cole