Is there a more 2012 way of putting out an album than the method used by Joel Plaskett to issue his band’s latest, Scrappy Happiness? The Halifax-based rocker released a song a week to CBC Radio and iTunes until The Joel Plaskett Emergency’s 10-song power-trio disc was out there in its entirety. It was only after all the songs were available that Scrappy Happiness recently surfaced as a physical CD.
It’s a far cry from an earlier age when the release of a new album was a single event with a date you marked on your calendar so you could run to the record store and grab it as it hit the shelves.
During a recent telephone interview with The Gazette, Plaskett said he wasn’t worried that the arrival of the actual disc would seem anticlimactic. There was a tradeoff, he explained: the press had shown some interest in his gradual unveiling of the songs, which were written over the course of a year. The publicity, in turn, had provided a different kind of momentum.
“It does definitely take some of the mystery out of the initial experience of listening to the record for the first time, when it’s been hidden away for three or six weeks,” Plaskett acknowledged, “but I just felt like this process would be a great challenge and it would be fun, and it would mark a time in my life.”
Also keeping the excitement level high for Plaskett was the upcoming vinyl version of the album – perfectly tailored at 40 minutes and five songs per side. “That, to me, is always the real victory lap,” he said. “Here’s my record. And now I can flip it over.”
Plaskett’s odyssey to the victory laps in his career started in earnest 21 years ago when he formed Thrush Hermit at the age of 16. To this day, he said with a laugh, some fans of that group – which disbanded in 1999 – don’t think his Juno-winning and Polaris-nominated work is on the same level as the Thrush Hermit material.
His earlier high-school band, Nabisco Fonzie, is less remembered. They became the Hoods.
“We played two sets at a school dance that nobody could dance to, because we were a terrible band,” he said.
The Hoods became Thrush Hermit and soon discovered Halifax’s vibrant musical scene through college radio. Plaskett gives credit to thenlocal heroes Sloan and their label, Murderecords.
“They brought a lot of their friends along for the ride. It was a real leg up. I owe a lot of the beginnings of my career to their desire to help their friends,” he said.
With the ink still drying on Plaskett’s high-school diploma, Thrush Hermit found themselves posing for a Harper’s Bazaar photo shoot, signing a publishing deal with BMG and sealing a record deal with Elektra. The record deal didn’t work out so well, he said, but one thing was clear to him: university was off the table. “When high school was done, it was ‘eject’ and hit the road,” he said.
Plaskett’s parents were supportive, he said. His father, Bill, a sometime musician who is now a heritage planner for the Halifax Regional Municipality, had instilled a love of British folk legends like Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Richard Thompson in his son. His mother, Sharon MacDonald, an academic, had danced in her youth.
But stimulating as the folkguitar legends had been, it was Led Zeppelin who turned the young Plaskett’s head away from Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 show for good.
“It was just the sheer scope and epic dreamlike power of it, the whole picture and the mystery,” he said. “I just feel the weight of the combined musicianship and ambition and dexterity with which they play and compose. Something about it is so powerful on a compositional level.”
The simple verities of Zep’s guitar, bass and drums foundation live on in Scrappy Happiness, a solid, straight-ahead rocker of a disc centred on Plaskett and his Emergency bandmates, bassist Chris Pennell and drummer Dave Marsh. It’s different in style from his highly acclaimed, Juno-winning and endlessly engaging three-disc solo project, Three, which brought him new fans. A high-profile opening slot for Paul McCartney in 2009 didn’t hurt, either. (Plaskett, who did not meet the Beatle, said he prefers many post-Beatles solo albums, like Plastic Ono Band by John Lennon and McCartney’s Ram, to the group records.)
Where Three was musically quirkier and more expansive, Plaskett said he wanted the new album to evoke the first two Joel Plaskett Emergency albums, Down at the Khyber (2001) and Truthfully, Truthfully (2003), but still organically follow Three.
Among the most arresting songs on Scrappy Happiness is the closer, North Star, which name-checks Neil Young, among other rockers heard during the automobile journey of the song’s protagonist through the Canadian Shield. In its final moments, a distorted solo – courtesy of a ’50s-era tape machine being used as an amplifier and melting down with the mic open – sounds exactly like Young and Crazy Horse on a blistering hot day.
“When you get to Neil Young at the end of the song, the idea is about committing yourself to the moment: shoot to kill ’em, that’s the line,” Plaskett said. “You have to mean it.”
The disc’s carefully chosen lyrical concerns – Plaskett said the theme centres on occupying the present while acknowledging the past – are set against a bar-band roughness that, in songs like Tough Love, evokes the Faces. It all comes together in what Plaskett likes to call “the Foghat moment.”
“I love Joni Mitchell. I love her lyrics. I love her creative ambition and everything. She’s one of my absolute heroes. But I also dig Nazareth’s version of This Flight Tonight,” he said, laughing. “It’s wicked, right? For me, it’s always been striking the balance of all that stuff I love about pubby rock and flighty, in-the-moment, going-for-it on guitar, bass and drums and trying to put down a cool groove, and also putting some art on top, and some words that I care about.
“There’s also a balance between taking yourself seriously and not taking yourself so seriously,” he said. “I really want to marry a lyrical point of view with a cool guitar solo.”