October 15, 2017, by Darren Clarke
We begin, as always, music first.
From the song, Extraordiaire, by Joel Plaskett-
I was at the post office buying a stamp, thinking that girl behind the counter was fine. I said, “You think this will get there by Friday maam?”
She said, “I get off work at quarter past nine…”
Where last week’s 90 Minutes to Love… featured the angsty, part goofball, part glorious, energy of the Replacements this week I’m sharing the King of Canadian Nice Guy Cool, a man who once sang with the legendary yam puppet, Yamma Mamma, a man who frequently creates music with his dad, a man who makes mother’s and aunt’s all across my home and native land remark each time, every time, “That Joel is is such a handsome boy, and so niiiice.”
But of course he’s much more than that. Joel Plaskett is a Canadian treasure. He’s a Riviere-du-loop referencing son-of-a gun, a humble, Oh Canada traipsing, troubadour, he is the lively, verging on cornball, friend who can always elicit a laugh, a sensitive and whimsical poet who, though he often lyrically paints with broad strokes manages to convey his message with such effortless ease and originality that even while singing crowd pleasing anthems he allows for the very unique, very personal, experience, of each individual within. Plaskett lulls you in with simple rhymes and sweet, simple, sugar cube, truisms and then catches you off guard with a wink indicating he gets the deeper, the harsher truths, he’s just not going to linger there-
“Nobody complains and no one is resentful, for the gift of life so, uneventful.”
Uneventful, Thrush Hermit
I discovered Joel Plaskett on Much Music in 1998 while waiting for a ride to play in a men’s league hockey game (wherein, given it was 1998, I probably inspired someone to punch me in the face). The band, featuring Joel Plaskett on vocals, was Thrush Hermit. The song, From the Back of the Film. The video’s motif was some 70’s nostalgia love that was a bit ahead of the 2010’s head-over-heels-hard-on for the decade of polyester pants/slacks, leather jackets and beautifully moppy hair, but the song itself just rocked. Some time later I caught the second video from the Clayton Park album, The Day We Hit the Coast, a video filmed in cold, sunny, wilderness, with the band rocking out in Grizzly Adams-eque full length animal skin outfits. It occurred to me that this was a Canadian band given the reference to Lake Louise, “I felt the cool, cool, breeze, blowing cool off Lake Louise.”
The band also had an East Coast Canadian feel. In a decade in which the East Coast of Canada produced such fabulous bands as Eric’s Trip, the Superfriendz (not to mention their offshoot The Flashing Lights), and the sublime, Sloan, Thrush Hermit was another gift from the corner of Canada whose musical cup runneth over.The Day We Hit the Coast’s rampant energy was reminiscent of Sloan’s great, The Good in Everyone, a song whose video- a supremely, wonderfully, dumb-ass video, also featured a fur hat, not to mention a fake moustache, a cowboy hat, and a throat-kerchief. In either case the music had jump, not in an angsty, 90’s Nirvana kind of way, but rather a, “Look we’ve got a band!” kind of way. It was excited to do what it did. It was fun, more Brit-pop than grunge, more joyful than jaded, their energy aligned more with what I imagine the Kinks and the Beatles had in their early incarnations.Thrush Hermit’s Clayton Park album is, along with Sloan’s Twice Removed and One Chord to Another, an absolutely killer album. The finest of Canada’s rock creations in the 90’s. Beyond the two singles already mentioned Clayton Park didn’t relent in providing brilliance inclusive of infectious tunes like, Songs for the Gang and O My Soul!, as well as the epic Uneventful and the majestic, We are Being Reduced, “Above the earth we receive the news, we are being, we are being reduced.”
Good luck finding Clayton Park though. Neither iTunes or Spotify has it and that’s a shame. That’s a damned shame. (Edit: This has since been rectified and most streaming services now include Clayton Park)
Thrush Hermit was great for many reasons but at the front of the room was Joel Plaskett. His voice was strong and frequently ventured into an odd off-kilter falsetto that you couldn’t quite place. It was different but familiar, it was straightforward but unique. And that’s Joel Plaskett.I saw Joel Plaskett for the first time in Hamilton, Ontario, at Hamilton Place (now First Ontario Place) on my birthday in October 2012. The same spot I saw Ozzy Osbourne on the Blizzard of Oz tour when I was twelve. Ozzy Osbourne at his peak with the otherworldly Randy Rhoads on guitar. I was shocked how much Hamilton place hadn’t changed. It was completely lost in time. I, of course, loved it. The sunny hardwood, the Brady Bunch primary colour red seats, the expansive rectangular backing of the stage that suggested infinite possibilities, the spacious 70’s layout. It is awesome. It was the perfect birthday present.Adding to the surreal impact of the venue was the fact that for the Plaskett show I ended up sitting in pretty much the same spot as the Ozzy show. In retrospect I should have really busted out the devils/rock horns but a Joel Plaskett show unfolds much differently than an Ozzy show. Ozzy’s performance was straight out of the Gods of Rock handbook, Plaskett’s right out of your next door neighbor’s greatest back yard party neighborhood flyer. Ozzy was religion, Plaskett was an engaging chat at the coffee shop. Ozzy had tassles and makeup, Plaskett the Canadian tuxedo, jean shirt and jean pants. One worked when I was twelve, one worked when I was in my forties.
We had arrived at the show a little late due to getting lost in downtown Hamilton. Getting lost in Hamilton at night isn’t the greatest thing to happen. Sample dialogue-
Darren- I think we are going in the wrong direction.
Stu- No, no, I think we’re fine.
Darren- All I’m saying is that the ratio of people drinking from bottles in a paper bag seems to go up at every corner.
But we made it. We grabbed a beer at the tiny refreshment stand and found our seats mid-way through the opener, Mo Kenney’s, show. I’d never heard of Mo Kenney so I wasn’t familiar with her connection to Plaskett. My first hint at this not being your average opening act came in noticing that Mo Kenny’s band was Joel Plaskett and the rest of his band. It was great. The crowd was smaller than I would have suspected, apparently owing to it being his second time passing through Hamilton on his Scrappy Happiness tour but it only increased the intimacy of the event.
The band was tight but not too tight, the show loose and fun. There were lots of opportunities for the engaging Plaskett to tell stories (inclusive of his bringing his iPod with him on stage for his acoustic set and and getting the crowd to sing along with him to some of the tunes he had on it), make jokes and remind you that he can really, really, play.
The 90-minutes to Love: Joel Plaskett mix is less encompassing of his overall output than most artists I will end up doing. Most bands you can spot the 2-4 albums that embrace their musical peak. But there’s way more to Plaskett. There’s Thrush Hermit, there’s Neuseiland (http://neuseiland.bandcamp.com/album/neuseiland), where he played drums for a band made up of members of the Superfriendz and Coyote, the Euphoric, there’s his latest album with his dad, which is all things wonderful (it killed me not to put Dragonfly in the mix but he just has way too many great songs) and finally there is consistently high quality product he has churned out as Joel Plaskett with and without, The Emergency, (drummer Dave Marsh and bass player Tim Brennan).
And I wonder why is that? Why do I not see the clear demarcation lines indicating the rise and fall of the potency of an artist that I have grown accustomed to? And if I had to guess (and of course I am eager to) I’d say it because while Joel Plaskett has never been commercially timely he has always been artistically timeless. There is no discernible attempt to be a thing or not a thing. It’s the real deal. He creates the unconventional within a conventional framework and it feels true. The subject matter for Joel Plaskett songs are the unremarkable remarkable things that make up his life- a beautiful woman in Through & Through & Through, “you’re a wrecking ball in a summer dress,” regret, “True regrets, I’ve had a few/But I know I’ve had my way too/In my back pocket, walkin’ round/True regrets, they can be found/My true regrets, they travel town,” school, noting at the end of Come on Teacher that it was dedicated to a French teacher who everybody gave a hard time and, “… especially Luciano Batalana, who… kept eggs in his drawer…” and that most Canadian of things, cold and snow in Snowed In, “Not how you act it is how you feel/It isn’t how you drive the car, It’s how you look behind the wheel/You drive north on scratch gravel roads. Your lips move in Morse code.”
There’s more- Killing time on the road travelling via North Star, “I fell apart, at the party/Drinking red wine and Bacardi/My constitution ain’t that hearty/And I’m not much good at mingling,” good crowds and bad crowds get sent up in I Love This Town, “I played a show in Kelowna last year/They said, “Pick it up Joel, we’re dyin’ in here.”/Picture one hand clapping, now picture half that sound/There’s a reason that I hate that town,” growing up/not growing up in Absentminded Melody, “The good old days – yeah I suppose/I’m glad they’re behind us now/The only thing worse than growing up/Is never quite learning how.”
Don’t get me wrong, there are a few songs I skip when I listen to the triple album Three and I am not entirely blind to the merit of some of the criticism directed his way, that some of his work misses the mark and is overly clever but these are minor quibbles, rare misadventures, and the fact is that nobody who creates special things always colours entirely within the lines. Further, the criticism made in Pop Matters by Ross Langager about, “His lyrics, which are stubborn in their insistence on rhyming,” misses the point. Plaskett’s rhyming reminds me of the Pixies in that you have to recognize that the effect is at times more about being musical than lyrical. I mean, I don’t know what the hell Frank Black (or Black Francis for that matter) is singing about half the time in Pixies (dollars to doughnuts though it’s probably about space aliens) songs but I love how the lyrics feel when sung. Plaskett’s rhymes, from the silly to the serious, almost always provide a kind of sonic satisfaction the impact of which shouldn’t be underestimated.
Perhaps there is no better example of the potency of Joel Plaskett’s artistry than his ode to Gord Downie, Just Because. A poem he wrote, translated to song and dedicated to the charismatic Tragically Hip frontman, another Canadian treasure, who had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour in 2016.
“You do what you do just because/Out of this world/overpowered by love.”
Plaskett’s note on the song he released via Soundcloud is, “Here’s a poem turned song I wrote and recorded called “Just Because (for Gord Downie)”. Crank it for the man with love. Joel”
This song is spectacular. Listen.
If you are Canadian and you aren’t listening to Joel Plaskett, you are doing it wrong. I’ve never really understood what exactly “Canadian,” is in anything more than kind of a vague way but that vague idea is one I care about, that I think many people care about. It’s humility, it’s humour, it’s caring, it’s creativity for the joy of creativity sake. It’s nice.
It’s Joel Plaskett.
The final song on my 90 Minutes to Love: Joel Plaskett collection is On & On & On from the triple album Three. The song checks in at over 12-minutes and is Plaskett going back and forth with Ana Egge and Rose Cousins in a gorgeously, aimless, drive through love, life, irreverence, travelling, drinking, Nova Scotia and all points in between.
To finish here are the lyrics to the song presented on some old pics I took out East, predominately in Mr. Plaskett’s place of birth, “Nova Scotia.”