I know, I know. Right now all you haters are thinking, “Big deal. A review from herohill. You went to high school with the dude, of course you like him.” Well, while that might be true, for a long time I actually leaned on the opposite side of that equation. I figured I listened to Joel because we used to head to class together and I watched him almost break his face trying a hand plant. It wasn’t until I started just listening to Joel simply as a song writer that I realized how talented he is.
I’m not sure any Canadian artist has finally tuned their style as well as Joel Plaskett. His unique palette of influence and inspiration blends an appreciation of the history of music fiddle, vinyl, country, R & B, the constant themes of being home and traveling the world but avoids any of the pitfalls that plague artists that rely on the past by keeping his songs upbeat and energetic. He splices tradition with drum machines beats, crunching indie inspired riffs and clever word poetry, and as a result he’s able to expose fans to musicians long since forgotten without alienating people who fell in love with his previous efforts.
Honestly, spend five minutes with the guy and you get the feeling that Joel is as happy to talk to you about the honor of recording in Willie Nelson’s studio as he is about crafting a hook for Classified. That love of music makes it impossible to question the sincerity of his songs, which is a good thing, because his latest opus the appropriately titled Three offers up 27 songs and on first glance you almost can’t help but think about filler. Bands go a career without writing 27 good songs, let alone trying to package them for consumption in one sitting. Long story short though… Plaskett pulls it off, offering almost no tracks that you feel the need to skip over and tons that stand up against any of his catalog.
There are a few singers – Springsteen, John Mellancamp for example – that seem to find the exact words to represent their hometown, and Joel has crafted his voice to speak for Nova Scotia (and Canada really) and transport our ocean home to other locations. Normally you might stumble over lyrics like, It’s a long long way to Winnipeg. And I ain’t to proud to shake a leg, sing for my supper now crack me an egge (Wishful Thoughts), but Plaskett makes those words just… fit… and forces you into the warming backing vocals, back beat and darting electric guitar of the road ready anthem.
Three explodes out of the gate with the country-fried electric guitar and a pulsing back beat of Every Time You Leave, but it’s when the backing vocals from Ana Egge and Rose Cousins (it must be said across the three LPs, they do a spectacular job ust listen to Gone, Gone, Gone for proof) kick in that you get hooked. Joel and the Emergency have always maintained a compact style, but the arrangements really bolster their sound and that energy continues into the lead single Through & Through & Through.
I always find Joel the most successful when he’s a bit playful on his records, and you can picture Joel and the girl’s smiling in the studio when they recorded this track. His salt of the earth comparisons hit the mark – You be April Stevens, I’ll be April Wine and I will man my post, but I won’t do what I’m told and little things like how he bleeps out a curse with quick horns make it impossible to not like the track. But Disk One as it is labeled is not all horns and licks. Pine, Pine, Pine jumps into the Maritime folk driven sound Joel is so comfortable delivering, but this time around it’s bulked up by steel, drums, fiddle and some backing vocals. Wait, Wait, Wait adds more steel and horns to give the sleepy, country anthem a jump in its step, without taking away from the melancholic admissions Plaskett offers up.
It’s not surprising that Joel seems to focus on “leaving” for the majority of the first record. He’s reached the point where his life well, as best as it can when he has to constantly hit the road is settled here in Nova Scotia, but he’s also reached the age where you can’t help but wonder why worked out the way it did. When you call a different city home for half the year, constantly see your friends leaving and have to say goodbye before piling into the van night after night, you can’t help but feel the grind, miss the smells of home or wonder why you still spend so many hours watching the odometer turn. Luckily for fans, Plaskett channels the feeling of being lost perfectly and on the first 9 songs of Three he turns a lot of those road weary images into a collection of playful and poignant metaphors about love and loss.