Here we check back in with Joel Plaskett & Co. nearly a decade after Truthfully Truthfully, and times have changed, but the music is as bright and wonderful to listen to as ever. The earlier album showcased Plaskett’s personality by matching his self-effacing wit with his rock bravado. Scrappy Happiness is a record by the same artist now in his mid-to-late 30’s. He’s mellowed out some and tamed his incorrigible nature to that of a sly, knowing elder. It’s not often I feel like I know enough about an artist just from music that I can go on like this in a review, but Joel Plaskett albums have a welcoming quality to them. It’s not that they’re autobiographical or confessional, per se, but they’re open and honest about what he thinks of the world: he has taken whatever’s inside him and made some damn good music out of it. Whenever I think of his music, I think of what Roger Ebert said about David Byrne in Stop Making Sense: “He seems so happy to be alive and making music.” On “You’re Mine,” an ode to youthful exuberance, he breathlessly proclaims his love for Husker Du, declares he’s Traveling through space and time / To keep my love alive” and screams like a triumphant warrior, “It’s 1995! / I’m yours and you are mine, mine, mine!”
This is a warm, good-natured, even nostalgic record. There isn’t a speck of bitterness in Plaskett’s voice, he’s still the earnest, amiable fellow he was on Truthfully, but he’s been around. Remember, he started out in the 90’s with Thrush Hermit and has spent the time since then grinding away as a rock auteur. Aside from relative obscurity in America, I’d match his career up against anyone who started out in that era. So it’s fair to say he’s got plenty to look back on. His positive outlook on the past is exemplified in the lyric from “Old Friends” “Sour grapes turn to fine wine / After a few years on a winding vine.”
The album’s warmth is most explicit on tunes like the dreamy “Habour Boys” and “Slow Dance,” which have a timeless quality to them. Plaskett’s theme on this album is how music can bind us together, and tie us to a place and time. On the former he proclaims “I came here to bring the noise / To the island girls and the harbour boys.” On the latter, he cautions “Is the slow dance my one and only chance to find me a little bit of romance?” After that line, the music of the song kicks into high gear. Joel knows how to build a song, as I praised in my earlier review this week, so that it’s not just into-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo, but never too abstract to keep away pop appeal. He’s just one of those songwriters who knows the rules well enough to break them properly. “I’m Yours,” the delicate, strummy inverse of the snarling “You’re Mine,” is a sweet, faithful ballad, which looks fondly back at the moment a young couple knows they belong together.
Half the album is mid-to-slow tempo tracks rather than outright rockers, and the album’s strength is that they’re all distinguished, never repeating a trick. One of the most insidious tracks, this way, is “Old Friends,” which begins as a slithering, hypnotic, night club-size torch song, subtly expanding until it’s absolutely crushing.
The album reminds me a fair bit of Big Star’s #1 Record, the way it matches sweet pop ballads with gut-instinct rock. It has that same spirit that Chilton and Bell infused in their music, the way you can when your love of making music is equal to your love of listening to it. This might even be an album that gets better the more music you listen to. It’s not hard to see a connection between the ballads on this album and “Thirteen,” the way they look back to youthful experiences with music to find importance in their lives, but even beyond that. “Tough Love” and “Time Flies” have a modest garage funk appeal reminiscent of Big Star’s “In The Street” or “Don’t Lie To Me.” “Somewhere Else” has tinges of R.E.M., which is helped by the fact that Joel can rock a mandolin and vocally isn’t that far off from being a Nova Scotian Michael Stipe.
The strength of Plaskett’s songwriting – and truthfully, the band’s altogether playing – comes at the beginning and end of the album. It opens with a song called “Lightning Bolt,” which is a pure visceral thrill to listen to. It’s structured to sound almost onomatopoeic, the way it flickers at the beginning like a distant storm, building into rolling thunder, and finally thrashing and wailing like the midst of a heavy electrical storm. The album’s closer, “North Star,” contains a lot of that self-effacing humour from his earlier albums, as it bops pluckily along, detailing stories of getting hammered and throwing up while talking endlessly into the night about music, which is an experience that is incredibly familiar to me. Its strength is the way it seems like a true denouement for the album, building from the ground up to a great height.
The guy knows his stuff, I’m saying. The fact that this album, and all of his albums, hits so many notes right on, speaks to his abilities. Damnit Joel, why do you do music so good? It’s just that his albums are such likeable, friendly things, and kind of overachievers. Even without outright setting up a concept (as he did on Ashtray Rock and more loosely on Three) he puts out a disc of enjoyable, thematically consistent and musically cohesive songs just because that’s what he does. That’s what experience gets you. Some rockers, when they get older, try too hard to recreate the past. The good ones use it to create the future.