Are you ready to take the Park Avenue Sobriety Test? Better be careful —it’s not to be taken lightly. It’s a metaphysical mind-bender that is part metaphor, part rite of passage, an acronym, an album and a band, all in one. It’s the real life ups and downs of one of Canada’s enduring Rock ‘n’ Roll heroes, mixed with the great storytelling from his active imagination. It’s a treasure map of discovery for downtown Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. It’s about sad times and the loss of dear friends, and ultimately, a way to get past all the crap out there and live for the little joys in the present. Ready or not, we’re all going to have to take the Park Avenue Sobriety Test at some point, so it’s best to be prepared. That’s where Joel Plaskett comes in with his brand-new album.
“I am hoping fans are going to like it, I think people who have followed my career are going to hear something they’ll connect with,” says Plaskett. “It’s a little all over the map, but I don’t think its schizophrenic. I’m trying to make music that is still vital.”
Plaskett finds himself at a crossroads: he’s closing in on a milestone age, about to enter his forties. He’s now a parent, and a small business owner in his city’s downtown, with the busy New Scotland Yard recording studio and record label. He has twenty-plus years of experience touring and making albums, several of them now considered Canadian classics. Yet he’s still closely associated with the country’s Alt-Rock scene –young and vibrant, making music that defines the edge. Standing at that crossroads, Plaskett looked back, looked ahead, and saw a record. “It’s about a 39-year old wrestling with his place on earth and in society, navigating it,” he explains. “It sounds banal, and it kind of is, but it’s important. And maybe if you’re at the same point in your life that I am, it will make sense.”
“I really enjoyed singing these songs, and I think it shows on the record. When I listen to it, I hear a lot of joy in the playing, because we cut so much of it live.”
It’s been three years since his last album, the longest amount of time in his career. Yet, it’s been the busiest time of his life –both personally and professionally— with family duties, business endeavours and relentless touring. He also has become an in-demand producer, working with Old Man Luedecke, Sean McCann, Sarah Slean, Mo Kenney and more. In the middle of that busy time, in the simplest of moments, came the birth of this new album, right in downtown Dartmouth. “I was walking my son to daycare, down Park Avenue, which is two blocks over the hill,” he explains from his local coffee hangout. “When you come down the hill, there’s this meridian there, and a guard rail to protect the cemetery, and you have to take a hard right. Well, a car had jumped it and smashed into the guard rail to protect the cemetery, and they were taking the guard rail away. I ran into my neighbour Roy on the way back, and I said, ‘Hey Roy, did you see the smashed-up guard rail?’ And he said, ‘That’s the Park Avenue sobriety test.’ And I thought, ‘what a wicked name for a song.’”
With title in hand, Plaskett next needed content. That came from life’s struggles, in what turned out to be a busy time, featuring some of the biggest highs and lows Plaskett has seen. There were friends battling some serious illnesses, and even a couple of deaths, including one that touched the entire East Coast music community, Jay Smith: solo artist and guitar player for Matt Mays. “So it was a ragged year,” Plaskett recalls. “And then Roy, who gave me the name of the song, which I had written by then, died of cancer. At the same time, there were all these great things happening, we adopted our son, and I built the new studio. There were all of these stressers in my life, good and bad. I spend a lot of time at the studio and there’s a real cast of characters in the area, the bars, the guys you see every day, there’s some scrappy shit going on. It makes me feel very lucky. I lead a lucky life, I travel, I play music for a living. You start to see the disparity. You start to realize that even a lot of people you know are struggling. Then, there are the people that you don’t know that you see on the street that are struggling. With that in mind, came (album opener) “Illegitimate Blues”, which is like, “I’m not down on my luck, but I’m feeling it.”
Plaskett now had his theme. If you follow the song arc, it’s about getting through the bad and scary bits of life, and keeping yourself at least a little positive. “How do you get through it and see the things that matter?” asks the 39-year old. “As you have more experiences as an adult, you start notching up the lost friends, and the missed opportunities, and the way things could or couldn’t have gone. You can choose to crumble or retreat, temporarily or permanently. Or, you can power through it and look for the joy. I am trying to strike the balance of the two perspectives here. I really can feel both of those at certain times, and even the same time.”
So who is this new ensemble that makes up The Park Avenue Sobriety Test? The key is in the initials. “Joel Plaskett and the P.A.S.T.,” he spells out. “More people are on it than the Emergency. I knew there was going to be songs that I wanted to do on my own, or with other people. If it’s an Emergency record, it’s perceived by my audience as a rock record. I think this record is broader than just the core Emergency. So I was trying to figure out how to get the boys in on it without calling it an Emergency record. So I thought this was a way to make it sound like a new band, Joel Plaskett and the Park Avenue Sobriety Test. Longtime Emergency cohorts Dave Marsh on drums and Chris Pennell on bass appear, as do previous Emergency members Tim Brennan, Peter Elkas, and old pal, Ian McGettigan (who also was in Joel’s previous band Thrush Hermit). Other guests include Halifax singer-songwriter Mo Kenney, Cape Breton instrumentalist giant J.P. Cormier on fiddle, pedal steel from Dale Murray (Christina Martin, Cuff the Duke) and piano from the soulful talent, Erin Costelo.
The P.A.S.T. also refers to Plaskett’s long-standing style of looking back in his songs, including little autobiographical moments and touches that help paint the bigger picture. “So it’s the idea that there’s a through-line from previous work in a lot of these songs, and the kinds of records that I make and the themes I care about. But I also feel that I’ve touched on some themes on this record that I’ve never touched on before.” He even worked in those little nods to the past on the album’s cover art, which sees him reclining on top of the shelves that hold his beloved and impressive vinyl collection. “It’s got the carpet from Three on it, and the carpet that inspired the cover of Ashtray Rock, and the Rock ‘n’ Roll monkey from the cover of Scrappy Happiness, all in the background. There’s also two of (wife) Rebecca’s wood burns, the covers of La De Da and Medical Attention. I think it represents this record, because there are songs that touch down on all of my previous records, for instance, Credits Roll reminds me of Thrush Hermit. I imagine it like a “Greatest Hits” of all new songs.
Plaskett’s music career started in 1992 when he was 17, as a founding member of Halifax’s Thrush Hermit. The band was inspired by the so-called “Halifax Explosion” of alternative music lead by Sloan, Jale, The Super Friendz and Eric’s Trip. Signed to Sloan’s Murderecords, the band released two EP’s before being snatched up by U.S. titan label Elektra for 1997’s Sweet Homewrecker album. We won’t go into why three million North Americans didn’t buy the album, but 1998’s Clayton Park album saw the band back in the Canadian Indie scene, and making the best album of their career. Sadly, it was also their swansong, but at 24, Plaskett was just getting started.
First there was a solo album, In Need Of Medical Attention, in 1999. Next, Plaskett found himself in need of a band for a fast gig, and that was jokingly dubbed The Emergency Band. The name stuck, and in 2001 came the first Joel Plaskett Emergency album, the landmark, Down at the Khyber. Fuelled by his many trips back and forth across the country and into the U.S., Plaskett had developed a writing style that was part-travelogue and part-narrator for a generation of music fans. In songs such as Down at the Khyber (a then-hot Halifax club), Maybe We Should Just Go Home, and True Patriot Love, he showed us how to connect from coast-to-coast-to-coast, without flag-waving. The Canadian identity wasn’t found in provinces and cities, it was shared experiences like falling asleep in front of the TV and waking up to the sounds of the national anthem sign-off.
2003’s Truthfully, Truthfully came next, including the favourites Come On, Teacher and Extraordinary. That was followed by a Juno nominated solo album, La De Da in 2005, which included Love This Town, universally admired everywhere, (except Kelowna, B.C.). Any concerns about mellowing out were dashed with 2006’s Make A Little Noise DVD, with it’s companion EP, which included the hit Emergency tune Nowhere With You. 2007’s Ashtray Rock took everything to a whole new level. The concept album about a teenage romantic triangle featured two band mates and a mutually admired young woman, taking place in a decidedly unromantic part of Halifax suburb Clayton Park, where the kids went to smoke and hang out. It wasn’t autobiographical, but it did have lots of moments inspired by Plaskett’s own teen years. It won a ridiculous six East Coast Music Awards, earned a JUNO nomination for Songwriter of the Year, and was shortlisted for the Polaris Prize.
2009’s solo Three was another kind of concept, this time a triple-album built around groupings of three, in song titles and lyrics, a mind-blowing batch of in-jokes, music nerd references and all-around top level song craftsmanship. This time, the JUNOS awarded Plaskett the Alternative Album of the Year, and the ECMA’s threw another six trophies at him. The rare tracks compilation EMERGENCYs, false alarms, shipwrecks, castaways, fragile creatures, special features, demons and demonstrations came next in 2011, followed in 2012 by the most recent Joel Plaskett Emergency release, Scrappy Happiness. That saw the band take on a new challenge, recording a new song once a week for ten weeks, each time immediately releasing it for airplay on CBC (the national broadcaster loves him), and for sale as a single on iTunes, before the entire album was released.
In other words, you never know what he’s going to do, and what the next album will sound like. He could deliver the big rockers, melt your heart with ballads, or touch your soul with sentiment. He acknowledges, “At this point in my career, I find it hard to do just one thing, I enjoy variety.” That explains his wide appeal in concert, where he easily moves from auditoriums to rock clubs to festivals. “I felt really lucky over the past few years because I’ve been able to slip between folk festivals, big outdoor shows in front of huge swathes of people, bar shows where it’s mostly a bunch of 20-somethings partying their faces off, and theatres where there are senior citizens and six-year olds. I like that, and I like the fact that somehow the music is reaching a wide number of people.
So you have it all with Joel Plaskett and The Park Avenue Sobriety Test. The rocker from twenty-three years of Canadian guitar classics on Credits Roll and Alright/OK, the nu-Celtic pride of On A Dime, the sympathetic voice for those beaten down by cruel economics and the 1% on Captains Of Industry, the personal heartache and loneliness of For Your Consideration, and the universality of the 160-year old Stephen Foster song, Hard Times, which speaks to Plaskett’s theme as much as any modern essay. And then there’s just the goofy, rhyming guy on Song for Jersey, fun for the whole family. In short, it’s a master work by a songwriter, musician and producer/studio owner who knows how to craft a big picture made of great smaller ones.