TORONTO - The Grapes of Wrath's new album "High Road" is their first in 13 years, and as a result it's been graffitied with that dreaded tag: reunion album.
But the Kelowna, B.C., outfit has unearthed an upside to the label — listeners have strolled in with rock-bottom expectations and have been caught off-guard by what they've found.
"Some people are shocked," said co-frontman Kevin Kane, sinking into a plush couch while chatting recently in a Toronto lounge.
"I mean, quite frankly, I talk to people who go: 'Really? It's this good?'"
"We don't really think it sounds like one of those reunion records," chimes in co-leader Tom Hooper.
"It just kind of sounds like we continued on from our last record. Although it took like 20 years. (It was) a holiday. We needed a holiday after the last one."
In fact, it was 13 years since we last heard from the group in the form of 2000's "Field Trip," though that record — also a reunion album, marking Grapes' first disc in nine years — was made without the participation of drummer Chris Hooper, who is now back in the fold.
Perhaps it's a good thing that it seems like more ancient history to the band, since ill feelings swirled even around their second dissolution.
The Grapes of Wrath's initial run began in the mid-80s, when they gradually built a broad Canadian following on the strength of their winsome, jangly folk-pop. In 1991, their "These Days" featured a sufficiently "alt" spin to become their biggest commercial success even as it met slightly diminished critical praise.
An ugly break-up followed soon after, with the band members firing arrows at one another in the press. Their turn-of-the-millennium reunion was short-lived, with Kane and Tom Hooper mingling old baggage with new then splitting after a tour.
"We found new acrimony," Kane says of the period, with a sly smile.
But in 2009, the band's two principal songwriters reconnected for some acoustic shows. They went well. Soon, an intriguing offer came in from the Fusion Festival in Surrey, B.C., to bring the whole band back for a performance.
"We agreed to it," Hooper recalled, "and of course it was like: 'Oh no. Now we have to do it!'"
The performance was a success. Soon, another offer came in, from Toronto's Aporia Records, for a new Grapes of Wrath album. The band agreed, and set out to make the new record in two weeks this past fall.
"We raced right through it, every day, and it was crazy," Hooper recalled. "We were together in the same room all the time almost.
"It was intense."
Even with songwriting split diplomatically down the middle, "High Road" feels remarkably cohesive. It's also surprisingly current, with the band's clean, chiming guitar tones and intricate harmonies calling to mind an array of fashionable younger bands — perhaps chief among them, acclaimed New Jersey outfit Real Estate.
"Yeah, Real Estate, man!" exclaims Hooper, his face brightening at the band's mention. "I heard a song by them, my son was playing it, and I said, 'Who's that? It sounds like the Grapes of Wrath!"
"Really?" asks Kane skeptically.
"You wouldn't believe it," replies Hooper, whose teenage sons keep his taste current.
"We're just trying to impress our kids," Kane added.
Jokes aside, there's something validating in the fact that the Grapes of Wrath's signature sound has aged better than some of their late-'80s peers.
Even if — as Kane argues — current bands that share a resemblance are likely just mining the same influences Grapes did.
"We were one of the few bands playing the wimpy guitar music, and surrounded by all these arena rock bands," Hooper said.
"'You're supposed to use chords and distortion at the SAME time?'" Kane laughs. "What did we know?"
Not that they have expectations of chart dominance with their return. The music industry has, in large part, deteriorated in the decade-plus since the Grapes of Wrath last put out an album, and both Hooper and Kane say they have no clear-cut goals commercially.
"Anything good that happens is great, but if not, we're just happy we did the record and we're happy with the record," Hooper said. "The fact that we actually did it is amazing."
There's the potential for more. But the band insists this was the rare reunion to come about organically, so there's no grand plan for how this should unfold.
"For as long as people want to hear it," said Kane when asked how long the Grapes of Wrath would continue on making music.
"I know I'd happily do another (record)," he added. "If people don't want to hear it, it doesn't mean that Tom or I would stop making music."
"We'll be doing music whether we like it or not," added Hooper.
"Whether anybody else likes it or not," Kane corrected, as Hooper chuckled in agreement.