It hasn’t been too long in today’s music world since Joel Plaskett put out an album, only three years on from Scrappy Happiness, but that seems like an eternity in Plaskett-years. He’s been at it since 1994 with his first group, Thrush Hermit, and the very longest he’s gone without a release is two years in all that time. That includes Thrush albums, solo albums, Joel Plaskett Emergency albums, a DVD with a CD of brand-new songs, a rare tracks compilation, a box set retrospective of Thrush Hermit, and the odd non-album 45 RPM vinyl single as well. So yes, you’d think he’d retired or something.
We certainly weren’t missing him on stage, as he has done a bunch of shows around the province in that time. But big things have been happening for him. He has had his own recording studio for awhile, but recently he moved to a new, bigger spot in downtown Dartmouth, all tricked out with some vintage recording gear and instruments. There he’s not only made his own music, he’s been producing for other artists such as Mo Kenney, Old Man Luedecke, and Sean McCann, ex of Great Big Sea. Another big part of his life has been his son, so he’s now a family man, and that changes everything of course.
None of this really delayed anything, in fact, it provided him with the whole theme of his new album, which is called Joel Plaskett and the Park Avenue Sobriety Test. We’ll get to that odd name in a second, but the concept of the album revolves around where Plaskett is in life right now. He’s 39, a newish father, a business person in his home town with employees and an office, and he’s been looking out at what he sees. Part of it is frustration; he’s upset at the so-called one per cent, how wealth, or the lack of it is hurting others. Part is hurt; he had some friends get sick, a couple even died. Part of it is the future; what’s it all about, what will his son face? The rest of it though, is positive, motivational even; get up, get going, find a way to get past the problems and be good to those around you.
As for the Park Avenue Sobriety Test, well, it’s everything. It’s the album name, it’s the title track, it’s the name of the band, it’s the whole key. It is a real something too. Plaskett was walking down Park Avenue in Dartmouth with his son a couple of years ago, and they noticed that this guard rail around the cemetery was being removed. Someone had been unable to negotiate the curve, and smashed into it in their car. When he told his neighbour about it, he laughed and told him that curve was known as the Park Avenue sobriety test for drivers. Plaskett said right then it was a great song title and he would write such a song. He turned it into a metaphor for life.
He also turned it into the name of the band on the album. The Emergency is still about, but here, it’s more like the Emergency Plus. The trick is to look at the initials, Park Avenue Sobriety Test… P.A.S.T. So it’s Joel Plaskett and the PAST. You have lots of folks from his past involved. A couple of former members of the Emergency, a Thrush Hermit guy, people who have played with Joel on other projects, friends, neighbours, it’s a new cast of characters made from old casts if you will. That reflects the overall sound of the disc too. It’s all over the place, but in ways you’ll recognize; Some sounds like Thrush Hermit, some like his Ashtray Rock album, or Three. There are big rock songs and slow personal ones. He says it’s like a greatest hits, without the hits, but the sound of the hits.
There’s a story arc to the album. It starts with the short Illegitimate Blues, where Plaskett admits he’s not actually down on his luck, but he sure feels that way. On A Dime starts with some down home Celtic fiddle, and a little fun reminiscing about the way things used to be, like playing road hockey in the liquor store parking lot. But the flip side is how much things suck now for the character. Is he one of the teens from 2007’s Ashtray Rock album, all grown up? Maybe. The next cut, Alright/OK is about rolling with the punches, adrift, alone in a society that’s racing along too fast.
The album’s middle section is a bit sad, a bit angry, and includes some un-Plaskett-like finger-pointing. Captains of Industry takes those CEO’s behind the economic forces that trickle down to hurt his characters. Lives are being torn apart, people driven away from each other. Then the mood breaks as the rock returns, and Plaskett’s character starts to figure a few things out, culminating in the title cut. He has to face it, The Park Avenue Sobriety Test.
Plus, the songs stand alone, if you don’t feel like following the storyline. For me, it’s a lot of fun to find out the creative process behind the music, but it wouldn’t matter if the songs weren’t there. This has the conceptual flow of Ashtray Rock, the whimsy of Three, and the rock spirit of the Thrush Hermit days, a fine combo as Plaskett looks forward and back, all in one album.