Joel Plaskett is an enviable talent. This has long been evident to Haligonians like me who have spent much of the past decade bumming around his concerts. But for all his talent as a charismatic live frontman, Plaskett’s recorded output is perhaps even more impressive. So many artists struggle with how best to evolve or change their sound from album to album while still maintaining a sense of identity along the way; through five albums and one EP in the last 8 years, Joel has made it look completely effortless.
Not unlike The Boss, Plaskett records both as a solo artist and with his backing band, the Emergency. With his last two records, he seemed to establish a clear division of sound between the two: his solo work would be largely acoustic and contemplative, whereas the more swaggery bar-rock elements of his sound would be reserved for the Emergency. Well, so much for that idea: Ashtray Rock is easily the most eclectic album ever released with Plaskett’s name on it. You get acoustic-driven contemplation, you get bar-ready rockers and you get some genre experiments that, at first listen, sounds completely “out there” by Joel’s standards.
“Fashionable People,” fits into this boat, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why it’s the album’s first single. The song is like a phaser-heavy, 80s-sounding version of “Extraordinary” with a falsetto hook and a super-heavy drum driven pre-chorus, and it sounds completely out of place on the radio (I admire the brashness of the choice, but listeners who made “Nowhere With You” a hit will likely have no idea what to make of it). The album also gives us a doo-wop experiment in “Penny For Your Thoughts” and a brief old-school rock and roll song for the album’s title track.
Thankfully, all of these work within the context of the record, a concept album the follows the story of two teenage bandmates who end up risking their friendship over a girl. That the album begins with these odder party songs and eventually moves into more traditional Plaskett fare makes perfect sense; the music gets more serious and reflective as its characters do. The concept may drive the record, but it’s Plaskett who makes it work. Somehow he has the credibility to sing about drunk teenagers and adolescent love without ever sounding condescending or ageist. Yet at the same time, he gives his characters just a hint of adult reflection that’s somewhat unrealistic but totally right within the album’s context. I can’t put my finger on just why it works, but dammit, it really does.
The music works, too, especially in the album’s second half where ol’ reliable Joel comes out of the woodwork. As enjoyable as the genre experiments are, it’s on the ballads like “Face of the Earth,” “Nothing More To Say,” and “Soundtrack for the Night” where the album shines the most. This is a reality that’s followed Plaskett his entire solo career since leaving Thrush Hermit – for all his appeal as a fun rocker, on the record he’s always at his best when the guitars get turned down to 6 or 7 instead of 11. It’s why most devotees still consider Down at the Kyhber to be his best record, and it’s why the sincerity of Ashtray Rock’s second half will likely hold up best as time passes.
While a local superstar here in Halifax, Joel has spent much of this time these last few years trying to build his reputation in the rest of the Great White North, and the acclaim of La De Da and the radioplay of the dependably disposable “Nowhere With You” has him in a better position to achieve national attention than ever before. In fact, Joel is taking this record westward for a cross-country tour next month prior to scheduling even a single Maritime show, to the chagrin of some fans on his message board.
But perhaps the biggest part of Ashtray Rock’s charm is that it seems completely oblivious to this reality. Not only is there no obvious radio bait, but like all of Plaskett’s work the album still lives and breathes Halifax, with countless name drops and inside references that only locals would comprehend (Bayer’s Road Shopping Mall, anyone?). But it’s more than that: this album just feels like home. No matter what path Ashtray Rock takes him on, Joel will always be Halifax’s reliably brilliant talent; a reassuring thought, no less.