[6 May 2009]
CanCon favorite Joel Plaskett must have a pair the size of honeydew melons. Two years removed from wading into the piranha-infested waters of the concept album with Ashtray Rock (my fave recording of 2007), Nova Scotia’s preeminent pop balladeer chooses to proceed from that ambitious work with not a double but a triple album. Not only does Plaskett wallop his fanbase with three discs of songs, he further plies them with titular trifectas: 14 of Three‘s 27 tracks have titles that consist of a word thrice repeated. Upon first glance, the effect of all of these threes is a little exhausting, a bit too cute, and not entirely lucky.
Plaskett, late of the cult Maritime indie-rock band Thrush Hermit, has developed into an interesting but variable sort of songwriting marksman in his decade as a solo artist. He vacillates between peppier party-rock with his band the Emergency, and rootsier, more introspective singer-songwriter material on albums that bear his name only (Three is really a follow-up to the folk-rock of 2005’s La De Da from this perspective). He’s well-steeped in most major genres of American pop music and draws from them liberally. His lyrics, which are stubborn in their insistence on rhyming, either hit their target dead on or wobble and miss from the unbalancing weight of their own (sometimes excessive) cleverness.
All of these elements, positive and negative, bump against each other on the first disc. “Through & Through & Through” is buttressed by shuffling rhythm, enthusiastic backing vocals from Rose Cousins and Ana Egge, and Motown horns. Plaskett himself is nimble and likable as a self-effacing mensch who is helpless in the face of “A wrecking ball / In a summer dress”. But the lyric trips over wink-and-nudge cultural references and a cowardly self-censored f-bomb, to say nothing of “You be Israel / I’ll be Palestine”. Plaskett compares himself to the Berlin Wall here, as well; it’s a good thing that nothing rhymes with “Buchenwald”, or we might have been subjected to even more serious historical happenings as analogies for frivolous pop-song heartbreak.
Elsewhere, Plaskett gives us an over-the-top country vocal on “Pine, Pine, Pine”, a rather terrible cover of Halifax indie hero Matthew Grimson’s “Drifter’s Raus”, and the interminable “Wishful Thinking”. The latter boasts a promising lite-blues bass riff and infectious chorus, and was perfectly fun in pre-recorded live versions (such as the one embedded below). But here it careens off the road shortly after a laugher of a line about moose in New Brunswick, before further devolving into a completely random litany of disconnected melodic cues. Even when the first disc’s songs are solid, they feel more conventional than usual. It’s not an auspicious start to a record that demands some major commitment from its listeners.
Fortunately, Three gets clear of the rocks early on the second disc with haunted Celtic-derived folk shanties like “Shine On, Shine On, Shine On” and “Sailor’s Eyes”. Plaskett keeps things acoustic and whispery and does much better, ringing truer with considered minstrel wisdom than he does with tossed-off parlor wit. “Heartless, Heartless, Heartless” (co-written by his musician dad Bill) approximates Harvest-era Neil Young with eerie ease, and “Down, Down, Down”, “Beyond, Beyond, Beyond”, and “New Scotland Blues” are the sort of hesitant recollections of his Nova Scotian youth that serve Plaskett so well.
The final disc synthesizes the first two’s best qualities in a mostly successful way. The bossa nova beat on opener “Rewind, Rewind, Rewind” is a bit too precious, though the brief country-pop grenade “Precious, Precious, Precious” ironically isn’t. “Deny, Deny, Deny” saws its fiddle irresistibly, “Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’” is an impeccable bluegrass hoedown, “Lazy Bones” is beautifully lackadaisical, and “All the Way Down the Line” is just beautiful. Even the endless album-closer “On & On & On” works; Plaskett’s abiding faith in rhyming is redeemed with a road-weary melody worthy of similarly lengthy Young classics like “Thrasher” or “Ambulance Blues”, and leaves our ears ringing with a ditty about his “little white fang”.
Though Plaskett weaves in repeating lyrical references throughout Three‘s songs, the record is too rambling and inconsistent in quality to match the thematic heft of Ashtray Rock. Still, it’s as focused and as coherent as a triple-album is likely to get. Plaskett’s underappreciated gifts continue to impress, even when his more irritating habits undermine them. To paraphrase the proverb Plaskett himself employs early on: decent to above-average things come in threes.