Joel Plaskett Emergency - Ashtray Rock
The first time I heard Joel Plaskett's solo work, I was dumbfounded.
Being a Thrush Hermit fan, I was destroyed upon my purchase of
'Clayton Park' when I found out that they were on the verge of breaking
up. I couldn't believe that real rock heroics like that of the Thrush were
still being manifested in modern artists. After purchasing his breakout
solo work 'Down At The Kyhber' in a used record store in Kingston,
though, I took an afternoon nap while listening to the cd in my discman
in '01. The balladry and formations of each song gave me vivid dreams,
and finally, I was awakened to the grand finale of 'Light Of The Moon'
as a beautifully, stripped-down acoustic tune gives way to a an epic
blast of thunderous guitars and drums from the heavens.
Having four major solo works under his belt and having gained major
Canadian exposure (by being a CBC darling), Plaskett is moving into a
new musical conjecture. 'Ashtray Rock' is his newest and perhaps most
highly touted offering with the album immensely produced under the
guidance and work of Mister Big Sugar himself - Gordie Johnson.
ChartAttack and a few other Canadian review zines have
dubbed it as 'Plaskett's breakout album' boasting that it will boost his
status from 'indie' to 'international'. Though I think making claims of this
nature is an act in futility, I think some of the interpretation in the art of
the album, itself, gets lost in the hopes that Joel will finally 'make it'.
'Ashtray Rock' is essentially a concept album in the sense that the songs
deal with three major characters - two guys, who are in a band together,
and a girl they are both in love with. The songs, though, don't list the
details of specific character struggles and plot twists but are instead still
loosely relatable themes for any listener. Though Plaskett mentions
specific names and places (i.e.the hate of 'Clayton Park' - the upscale
suburbia neighbouring downtown Halifax and, oddly enough, the last
Thrush Hermit album title) in the lyrics, the listener can either readily
identify with or flashback to a time when they, too, were 'Drunk
Teenagers' and hangin' out somewhere like 'Ashtray Rock' where they
imagined 'if that lake was beer' or imagined if that huge, boulder-ish 'rock
was hash'. Plaskett pulls off the renaissance of innocence well enough with
his boy-ish voice, embodying a lot of youth with an amazing vocal range,
while delving out some passionate sentiment in the delivery of each
Though his words are often a little airy and vague, Plaskett's smooth
tones and voice inflection often depict much more than what the actual
words are saying. I'll be honest - Upon my initial listening to this disc,
I wasn't too crazy about how it played out. I even felt more indifferent
to this release than I did to 'La De Da' - JP's 2005 release. At first
hearing, the tracks just seem to be more radio filler than any sort of
expansion or progression. After a few re-listens, though, I definitely
started to hear more craftmanship and artistry in the last few tracks
('"Face Of The Earth", "Nothing More To Say" , "Chinatown/For
The Record" and "The Instrumental") in the wrestling through the
breaking up of a relationship during the winter months and darker
themes. 'Nothing More To Say' is possibly one of the best tracks of
the album dealing with the finality of loss between one of the boys in
the band and the heroine of the story:
'All the leaves are gone, I don't give a f**k /
Let the winter come on, I think I'll try my luck'.
'The Instrumental', though, is more of a teaser, showing some climactic
soundbytes of songs, in rock-operatic form, ending with the words of
the nameless girl character from the story as if it were a voice-over on a
postcard sent as a form of closure to the boys in the band.
For all the symbolism that this album obscurely hints at, though (including
the mentioning of someone who wanted to build a pool beneath the floor
of the high school gym), for the most part, the usual stand-out lyricism
and musical maniacism of Plaskett is lost on this disc. Though there are
a few great songs near the end of this disc (and some really great album
artwork from Rebecca Kraatz - Plaskett's wife), the first half fails to
deliver, offering mainly poppy, radio-friendly sure-fire hits. Sadly,
'Fashionable People' sounds like it could have been a Big Sugar song
which is far from the vein of JP's usual stream-of-consciousness rock.
Anytime a song sounds like less like the musician and more like the
producer...co-inky dink? Hmmm. Unless you're really into
fastforwarding through half of the album you purchase, I would stay
away from 'Ashtray Rock'.
But since this album is all about 'setting the record straight', I feel
the need to speak a little insight and truth. I'm a Joel Plaskett fan and
probably always will be as such. One thing that really annoys me
within the Canadian music scene, though, is this idyllic notion that
if someone isn't breaking into the major markets of the
USA or Overseas, then they are a 'hack' or an indie failure. JP listeners
and fans will always be his fans, not because of his status within any
scene, but because of his commitment and devotion to his craft and
artistry. Having said that, it's even more disheartening when musicians
themselves get into the mindset of 'this has to be my breakout album
or else I'm throwing in the towel'. Unfortunately, with the music scene
in Canada as sparse and as crowded as it is, there is a definite hard
to swallow truth in the defunction of many bands who have worked
to keep things alive but who had to, at some point, get back in their
lifeboats and old dayjobs.
Kudos to Joel for staying in it for as long as he has.
'What do you do when the good's all gone? There's nothing more to say' - J. Plaskett