Witty Nova Scotian minstrel makes the perfect party record for people who are tired of party records.
As well-liked as Nova Scotian cult-heroes Thrush Hermit were in their mid-'90s heyday, their 1999 breakup was the best thing to happen to erstwhile frontman Joel Plaskett. His solo albums have grown steadily in breadth, depth, and quality of expression, and their progression has led to a classic album of Canadian rock whose twilight-vision anthems will endure for years to come: the absorbing, charming, entertaining, and moving Ashtray Rock.
Ashtray Rock seems carved from the same stone quarry from whence came Wilco's "Heavy Metal Drummer", Big Star's "Thirteen", Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, and like-minded Canadian artist Chester Brown's graphic novel I Never Liked You (the indie-comix illustrations on the cover and in the liner notes by Plaskett's partner Rebecca Kratz perhaps encourage the latter association). It's clever, nostalgic, celebratory, and tragically youthful. It rouses and saddens in equal measures. And it seems perma-frozen in a forever-departed late August evening where booze drowns broken hearts, promising bands fizzle before they get a real gig, and either winter, adulthood, or both wait beyond the bend to wash it all away.
Which is not to say, of course, that Ashtray Rock is a flawless album by any means. But I begin with a consideration of its missteps because even they are part of its peculiar genius, its singular aesthetic impact. Album-closing quasi-hidden-track-fragment "Outroduction" is somewhat needless, sure, but it's lead single "Fashionable People" that works the least of all of the tracks here. Though Plaskett's target - the thoughtless sexual irresponsibility of the young and scene-y - is a worthy one for satire, he doesn't quite know when to stop here. A shuffle-pop tune that might have been amusing enough at two-and-a-half to three minutes, "Fashionable People" backslides into inanity and interminability at more than four, and is hardly helped by a lazy rhyme of "loaded" with, well, "loaded".
And yet, even a blemish like this has a vital role in the final analysis. "Fashionable People" is basically a very silly party-rock song of the sort that the Emergency is often pigeonholed as being entirely reliant upon, and is surrounded by the similarly pitched but more generally successful "Drunk Teenagers" and "Penny for Your Thoughts". But far from sinking Ashtray Rock under an initial storm-surge of frivolity, these intensely catchy but helplessly shallow pop slices grant it a sense of naive juvenile joy that the more soulful later cuts temper with experienced, wearied worldliness. Whether or not Ashtray Rock's narrative thread is entirely evident, the way it is sequenced gives it the illusion of maturation over its running time. The album grows up before your very ears, and it's a wonderful experience.
The album drives through the smooth blues-jam "Snowed In / Cruisin'" and into the immensely affecting ode to troubled adoration "Face of the Earth", and pathos encroaches. By the time we reach "Nothing More to Say", a break-up song of unflinching certainty, the youthful giddiness of the opening tracks has taken on an autumnal tinge of elegiac sadness. And although "Soundtrack for the Night" is the record's perfect closing statement as well as a largely-unforgettable pop anthem, Ashtray Rock’s emotional climax comes just before, in the suite-like cycle of "Chinatown / For The Record" and the long-anticipated "The Instrumental".
The former is simply gorgeous, packed tight with regret and tenderness like dynamite in a mountainside, and when Plaskett croons vulnerably "This one's for the record / and the record's for you" and the opening acoustic strums of "The Instrumental" light the fuse, a pure rock explosion soon follows, a concoction as potent and technically impressive as you'll ever hear. And that's to say nothing of the track's poetic spoken-word letter, read by Kratz, that is perhaps the most oddly moving moment of an album full of oddly moving moments.
Impeccable pop hooks, witty lyrics, seamless transitions, and forceful performances aside, the album's tender membrane of melancholy is what makes Ashtray Rock truly great, an effect ever more evident both in retrospect and upon later listens. Plaskett knows that life isn't all handclaps and tambourine-slaps. Too much rock and roll damages your hearing, when you drink too much you throw up, and hooking up with every cute hipster thing that crosses your path can have heavy consequences. For its insight as much as for its infectiousness, Ashtray Rock is one of 2007's finest Canadian LPs.