Joel Plaskett Emergency: Ashtray Rock

Ross Langager

Witty Nova Scotian minstrel makes the perfect party record for people who are tired of party records.

Joel Plaskett Emergency

Ashtray Rock

Label: MapleMusic
Canada release date: 2007-04-17
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.