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McNutt Against The Music

A few months ago, I was having drinks with a fellow music writer who admitted to me that she strongly disliked Joel Plaskett. That she felt this way didn’t surprise me, but in hindsight, it’s a bit strange that I didn’t even try to mount a well-reasoned response.

I could have argued that he’s the closest thing we have to a Springsteenian archetype in Canadian music, achieving an oft-masterful balance of playful rock motifs with soul-searching folk sentiments. I could have made a song-by-song case, because even if he’s yet to make a true CanRock masterpiece of an album (though Thrush Hermit’s Clayton Park may fit the bill), Joel’s song catalogue ranks among the strongest of our country’s working musicians (particularly those working in the past decade). Or I could have staked a claim for him as one of the most entertaining live performers going, shamelessly performative and endlessly playful whether solo or with the Emergency.

But all I felt compelled to muster was, “He’s our guy.”

Local music criticism—especially in a peripheral city like Halifax—has its challenges. It’s not just that the intimacy makes criticizing bands a bit awkward, but more that it’s hard to shake the cheerleader instincts. You want to see the scrappy band down the street make it big and become successful, especially since so few of them do. You find yourself overlooking or glossing over the flaws, perhaps in an effort to forget that there are probably 50 or 100 bands in New York, LA or Toronto that are doing what these kids can do; in Halifax, they may be in a league of their own. Plus, with notable exceptions—like the Inbreds—band members don’t usually move out here. We don’t collect artists like Toronto or Montreal; our scene is usually born, bred and bound here.

So at a certain point, it becomes hard to separate the shared roots—yours and theirs, intertwined like a mess of patch cords strewn from the shoddy wooden stage across the club’s concrete floors.

Joel Plaskett was the first act I ever saw in a bar. It wasn’t my first time seeing him—he caught my ear performing songs from Down at the Khyber just prior to its release at an outdoor festival gig on Citadel Hill—but, home from university for the holidays and having just turned 19, I finally had the chance to visit Halifax’s renowned Marquee Club to see the Emergency play its small, comfortable basement venue known as ‘Hell.’ It was your adorable “N00bs learn to go to rock shows” moment: we arrived way too early, thinking that it would start at the advertised time; it took us forever to find the door; we were sure we were in the wrong place because it was so small; and we sat way too close to the front. And it was pretty great.

Hell, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Joel give a bad show. (Note: I’m not friends with the guy, so I should be writing ‘Plaskett’ instead of ‘Joel,’ but I tried it and it felt wrong.) I’ve seen him in small, now-defunct restaurants with just his acoustic guitar. I’ve seen him open for Paul McCartney in front of over 30,000 people. I’ve seen his famous New Years Eve shows (which used to be yearly) when they were small, and when they got too big to handle. I’ve seen Thrush Hermit reunite, I’ve seen R. Kelly covers, I’ve seen it all.

This doesn’t mean that I can’t still be critical. I’m solidly in the “Three would have been a killer single record” camp. I’d contend that there was a phase around Truthfully Truthfully where he threatened to let his rock showman side overwhelm his writing. And I confess to being more than a bit bitter than the kind-of-annoying “Nowhere With You” has become his biggest hit.

But these are all forgivable, even if perhaps a less-invested fan might find them more glaring. What matters is that, at their core, Joel and his music represent so much of what I love about my city: its intimacy, its playfulness, its sense of its own history, its little inside jokes, its self-conscious cleverness. Joel sounds like my town, and his music has been there as I’ve discovered its nooks, its crevices, its tiny secrets, its charming relics.

This makes the idea of a Joel Plaskett rarities and outtakes collection quite enticing, and while the excessively-titled Emergencys, False Alarms, Shipwrecks, Castaways, Fragile Creatures, Special Features, Demons and Demonstrations 1999-2010, released today, isn’t quite the treasure trove of, say, Springsteen’s Tracks, it’s still a great little set that illuminates much of what Joel’s work so endearing.

On the surface, Emergencys may seem a bit shallow, considering that 11 of its 20 tracks are demos or alternate versions of previously-released material. And admittedly, some of these sound a heck of a lot like the released versions, minus some fidelity and plus an intriguing flourish or two. But it’s thrilling to hear three of his Down at the Khyber classics, including “True Patriot Love” and “Waiting to Be Discovered” demoed while Hermit was still together; there’s a youthful rush to these tracks, as if you can tell something great is in the making. Two of the best discoveries: original demos of “A Million Dollars” and “Make a Little Noise,” both highly produced on the Gordie Johnson produced Make a Little Noise EP, but gain a different and wonderful heft in their rugged first-takes.

As for the more original tracks, album-opener “On the Rail” is a stunner. In an interview with Herohill, Joel says that he wrote the song (originally included as part of CBC Radio 2?s “Great Canadian Song Quest”) right after seeing Springsteen live and you can hear it: it’s that sort of tossed-off anthem, full of universal sentiments, that the Boss does so well. “Blood in My Veins” is a great outtake from Ashtray Rock—for my money, Plaskett’s best and most complete statement as an album—which, understandably, would have wrecked the flow of the record. “Please Don’t Return” should have made Down at the Khyber, and folks like me who have seen Plaskett a ton will recognize his live-staple cover of Irma Thomas’ “The Hurt’s All Gone.” The oldest song is “My Failing Health,” written alongside other material from In Need of Medical Attention.

But while there’s much to endorse on Emergencys, I admit that it feels more like an album for ‘us’ than something designed for mass appeal. Those who haven’t bought into Joel’s work prior will find nothing new to like here, and maybe even more reasons to tune out. But as the record moves along, and the dates on the songs get older and older, the album feels like living the past 10+ years of my life in reverse. I hear my city, and Joel along with it, shrinking in scope from a festival-headling rocker, becoming smaller and smaller until it’s just a man and his 8-track recorder, waiting to be discovered.