What sophomore slump? Faced with the challenge of following up their acclaimed 2013 debut album Man On The Page, Good For Grapes have responded by coming up with a second record that is even bigger, bolder, and more compelling. Set for release on Pheromone Recordings on October 2nd, 2015, The Ropes is the sound of a young band that, five years into its career, has truly found its voice.
Helping the cause this time out was the fact that in November 2014, the Vancouver-based band was awarded the grand prize of the Peak Performance Project BC. Arguably the most lucrative prize in Canadian music, it brought Good For Grapes the sum of $102,700 to use toward furthering their career, and The Ropes proves it to be money well spent. Chief songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Daniel McBurnie explains that “the PEAK prize allowed us to do many things we likely could not have done with the record otherwise. It gave us time to sit back and be creative with it.”
A key player in the creative process was noted producer/engineer Howard Redekopp. He has been at the console for albums by such artists as the New Pornographers, Tegan and Sara, 54-40, Mother Mother and Dear Rouge, a body of work that caught the ear of Daniel and his comrades. “We’ve always had a running conversation about producers we might like to use for our next record,” says McBurnie. “I’ve always loved Howard’s recordings because of how tight and wide and exciting they were. I always thought it’d be interesting if that kind of principle was applied to our kind of music to make a really modern-sounding folk record. We definitely went into The Ropes wanting to take our so-called rootsy songs and put more of a modern rock ‘n roll twist on them. Howard was the perfect guy for that.”
That was the mandate Good For Grapes and Redekopp took into the extended recording sessions (March through May 2015) at world-renowned Vancouver studio The Warehouse. “That’s the first time we’d ever been in a studio that famous,” Daniel recalls. “Everything is just so high class. It kicks your ass to make you perform at your best when you think ‘oh, the last band in this room before us was Muse'”! Other star clients of the facility have included Metallica, R.E.M., Nickelback, AC/DC, and (studio owner) Bryan Adams.
Redekopp helped keep things loose yet productive. For McBurnie, “working him was everything I hoped it’d be and more. Howard is such a personable guy. He becomes your best friend and he’s not afraid to totally be himself. That was really fun, because when you’re locked in a room with people your true self and how weird you are really shows.”
The producer also contributed valuable ideas to the songs Daniel brought to the table. “Howard was really good about saying what he thought about every song and its parts, asking ‘what if we did this with the song?’ He’s a bass player so he had a lot of suggestions for bass grooves. For instance on ‘Sorry Now’ he made one small change to the bass part and made it open up and sound way more groove-y.”
Joining McBurnie in the studio were his fellow Grapes-pickers Graham Gomez (guitar/vocals), Alexa Unwin (piano/vocals), Robert Hardie (bass/vocals), Alex Hauka (cello), Will Watson (percussion), and Greg McLeod) (violin, trombone). The septet lineup enhances the ability of Good For Grapes to move seamlessly through multiple musical genres, while multiple vocalists helped build the harmonies that have become a group signature. Further fleshing out the sound of some tracks on The Ropes are guests John Sponarski on pedal steel and Chris Mitchell on trumpet. Daniel brings his well-crafted songs to the group with most parts orchestrated, but he explains that “when we learn a song together we’ll jam it out a bit and add little frills here and there. If something sounds good it stays in.”
McBurnie is an astonishingly prolific songwriter. Man On The Page comprised 13 songs and clocked in at just under an hour, while The Ropes has 11 songs and a running time still over 50 minutes check. In an age of shrinking album lengths, this is a welcome reversal of a trend, especially given the consistently high quality of his material. Daniel notes that “when we released the last album I already had 10 to 15 new songs, so we were nearly ready to make another record. Over the course of two years of touring, most of those songs were replaced by newer songs I was more interested in.”
Daniel describes the songs on The Ropes as “more melody-driven. The lyrics also mean more to me, and I see the album as an increasingly mature version of the voice we’re trying to express.” That voice is now a pleasingly unique one, as Good For Grapes incorporate different elements into their roots-based sound. “The Ropes is more country than the last one and a little more rock ‘n roll,” analyzes McBurnie. “We went in those two directions more and we were not afraid to use electronics to make a more modern noise.”
On the insanely catchy “Faces In The Sand,” for instance, the horns and whoo-whoo vocals give the track a ’70s Rolling Stones vibe. “Waiting On A Ghost” is an irresistibly upbeat folk-rock tune that is already a live favourite, while the dynamic “Show Me The Ropes” will surely soon follow suit. “Gethsemane Blues” takes the listener on a sonic ride through light and shade for a memorable eight-minute journey, while the free-wheeling finale to album closer “Setting Sun” hints at The Allman Brothers, further evidence of Good for Grapes’ open-eared approach to the album.
McBurnie notes that for Man On The Page “we’d played most of the songs for a year or two before going into the studio and we wanted to capture the live feeling. The Ropes was the mirror opposite. It was ‘let’s go in and make the best recording we can, then figure out how to play the songs live.'”
The potential for excellence displayed in Man On The Page certainly caught the attention of respected record biz veteran, Kim Cooke, founder of Pheromone Recordings. He explains that “Every once in a great while you hear new music and you just know. So it was with Good For Grapes. Pheromone is super stoked to sign on and contribute to their development.”
The debut album also notched plenty of rave reviews. Noted roots music publication Penguin Eggs placed Good For Grapes on its cover, and editor Roddy Campbell called it “a disc that bristles with enough captivating hooks, creative flair and raw energy to place them firmly alongside such celebrated hybrid folk luminaries as The Lumineers, The Avett Brothers, Fleet Foxes and their ilk in terms of both commercial and artistic appeal.”
Good For Grapes is eagerly anticipating a fall return to their happy home, the road. “You just can’t help but smile as you watch the group pound out their music, bursting with sheer joy – when they’re on stage it’s obvious there’s no place they’d rather be” reviewed the leading Vancouver publication, The Province, and it’s clear their infectious charm as performers has served them well, winning them a loyal and growing audience across the country. “We have three new members since the first record, so this is something of a new band now,” Daniel explains. “We’re all starting to find our own sound together on our natural instruments, and that feels very cool.”
It is fitting that live performance remains the core for Good For Grapes, given that the band was formed out of an impromptu busking session by a group of friends on the ferry to Victoria some five years ago. They’re not spending too much time reflecting on the path already travelled though. “If you stop too long to look back, you’ll never look forward. We are still gunning it,” Daniel reassures us.
That is exactly what they’ve done on The Ropes, scaling new creative heights in truly thrilling fashion.x