Born in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia (90km from Halifax) to a musical family, Joel Plaskett discovered the joys of rock ‘n’ roll at a young age. After moving to Halifax he formed his first band in 1988 at the tender age of 13, a power trio called Nabisco Fonzie that featured Rob Benvie and Ian McGettigen. By 1992 they’d added drummer Michael Catano and renamed themselves Thrush Hermit, a name that would within seven years be something to conjure with. From his humble beginnings recording to commercial cassette he has risen to become a nationally known icon of Canadian music, and a champion of the East Coast musical scene. He’s won a stack of awards, including a Diamond Jubilee Medal from the Queen in 2012, and has scored three Polaris Prize nominations. His music is a lesson in the timeless appeal of rock music as a driver for pop melodies and as a perfect example of the Beatles-by-way-of-hard rock that exemplified the white-hot Halifax rock scene of the 1990s.
As of April 30th Plaskett has signed with Toronto’s Pheromone Records to record his next album, due out in early 2015.
Nobody’s Famous (1992)
An interesting trip back in time, if nothing else, Nobody Famous is an artefact of the nascent Halifax pop scene that would explode within five years. The first two tracks, “The Topic Being” and “This One’s Mine”, are what would become de rigeur: punky pop songs with wistful Beatles-esque melodicism and a nearly innocent sense of place. “Tedious” is, unfortunately, what the name suggests, a four-mintue slog through downtempo guitars slathered in chorus. The final track, “Picturesque”, brings the tempo back to the norm, although the results resemble something like Sponge’s “Plowed” more than, say, “North Dakota”. All in all a pretty decent debut; had I gotten this cassette pressed into my hand as a sweaty indie kid at the dawn of the 1990s, I would have been pretty excited.
John Boomer (1993)
John Boomer can really be considered the first real “Thrush Hermit” release – all of the element of the sound are in place, from the crunchy fuzz-guitars to the hard-edged melodies that Halifax would become known for. Songs like “Marya” and “Simple Universal Leader” are early indicators of the band’s strengths – pop experimentalism that erupts into simple, shout-along hooks quite often. A track like “Quartermark” is a lot noisier even than later noisy Thrush Hermit would be, and the nostalgic lo-fi analog production carries a lot of that noise. Remember when home recorded guitars sounded like that? They sound so professional today. As far as the EP goes, it sounds similar to a lot of other alterna-indie “first efforts” recorded at the time; a close cousin would be Smeared, the debut from Sloan that would be released the next year.
Counted typically as the first “official” Thrush Hermit release, Ammo is a three-song EP of fast-tempo material: “Pink Is The Colour”, featuring with distorted guitars and a searing mid-song primitive solo; “Cookie”, with melodies that would be Thrush Hermit’s stock-in-trade; “Rosebody”, a reprise from the John Boomer cassette that deals in smash-and-grab three-minute pop-punk. The difference between this and their later full-lengths is stark; the dynamic changes that would characterize Sweet Homewrecker are not here, and in their place are frenetic rhythms that really speak to how young the band is here.
Another reprise of cassette material, the Marya EP features three more tracks from the John Boomer cassette: the title track, “Simple Universal Leader”, and “Cott”. These tracks are closer to what the band would eventually be than the Ammo EP, especially “Marya” – simple hooks and complicated dynamics.
Smart Bomb (1995)
Signed to Sloan’s Murderrecords, Smart Bomb is the real beginning of the Thrush Hermit sound, especially on the opening one-two punch of “Hated It” and “French Inhale”, which serve as two of the greatest artifacts of the Halifax scene. “Hated It” would end up in Mallrats and “French Inhale” would show up on MuchMusic (in those long-dead days when Much took risks and championed the national indie scene). Coming to university I’d never really heard much of the band and my roommate had a copy of Smart Bomb. I must have played the disc enough to wear a line right into the plastic. The EP would feature more old material (“Cott” and “Pink Is The Colour”) but the majority of it was new, and radically different than what the band had been peddling prior to the album.
The Great Pacific Ocean (1995)
The Great Pacific Ocean is different from Smart Bomb in that there is a lot more mid-tempo chugging going on. The title track (and its end-song reprise) outlines another Thrush Hermit factor: the mid-tempo epic. The theme would later be given even greater attention on Clayton Park. The ideas here – pop muddle that bursts open into chant-along hooks – would form the basis of their first LP in 1997.
Sweet Homewrecker (1997)
Sweet Homewrecker is a debut LP that delivers on the promise that the band had built up over the previous five years. The wiry teen-punk anthem-attempting from their original cassettes is all but scoured away, replaced by a heady mixture of Beatlesque garage-pop and Seventies hard rock. The band’s previous success with “Hated It” and “French Inhale” are the keystones here, although the success of the Halifax scene at the time certainly plays a role in the sound as well. Opener “Skip The Life” definitely owes a debt to the aforementioned scene, coming off like a heavier Sloan, but the next song undoes all of that. “North Dakota” has a crunching riff that rivals Black Sabbath, and the band marries it to the sort of wistful melody that Joel Plaskett would make his name on over the ensuing two decades. The rest of the album bounces back and forth between these two ideas; unfortunately, most of the crunch doesn’t live up to the promise of “North Dakota” and a lot of the heavier pieces fall flat about halfway through, muddling along to the last chord. Still, aside from these missteps there are some very strong classics on here: “Noosed And Haloed Swear Words”, “At My Expense”, “Darling Don’t Worry”, and (my personal favourite) “I’m Sorry If Your Heart Has No More Room” are all songs to build a name on. The latter in particular; the roommate I mentioned in the Smart Bomb write-up used to belt that one out when we were drunk in our first year, which was often. The album was released on Elektra but when it didn’t sell to expectations they were dropped and signed to Sonic Unyon for their second (and last) album.
Clayton Park (1999)
God, what a way to start an album. “From The Back Of The Film” is probably my all-time favourite opener, and it sums up everything the East Coast was doing back before it all kind of faded away. Clayton Park owes a heavy debt to the 1970s, as did Sweet Homewrecker, but where the debut tended to muddle and plod through it’s hard rock motion, Clayton Park amps up the riffs and captures the sense of fun that their live shows were known for. This is stadium rock made by guys who grew up in the aftermath of the stadium rock era – which makes for all of the grand gestures with none of the weary crap that infested rock and roll by the dawn of the 1980s. There’s a little something for everyone here: “Violent Dreams” and “Uneventful” satisfy those Sabbath fans who fell in love with “North Dakota”, “Oh My Soul” speaks to the stoner Southern rock fans, the sprawling “The Day We Hit The Coast” is the stadium epic kids used to whip out their lighters for. “Headin’ South” adds a bit of snark and feedback to the proceedings, bringing back the spirit of their early punk rock days without dragging along the obviousness of three-chord muted power chords. Clayton Park is both the apex of the band’s sound and their unfortunate finale; their final tour would be cut short by Plaskett’s poor health and by the grumblings of Rob Benvie about his reduced singing roles and the “boring” direction the band was taking.
A one-off supergroup collaboration between Plaskett and members of fellow Halifax buzz band Super Friendz, Neuseiland is a strangely uneven collection of songs that channel sludgy garage rock, cerebral Krautrock, and a reggae tinge. It’s pretty much out of print now and you can’t find the songs on YouTube currently, so I’m going on fuzzy memory here, but if you can get your hands on it, it’s well worth giving it a spin.
In Need Of Medical Attention (1999)
In Need Of Medical Attention, Plaskett’s first solo album, is the sound of Thrush Hermit stripped down to the bare essentials. Replacing the crunching, 70s hard rock-indebted riffing are reverb-laden, atmospheric pianos, exposed-granite bass lines, slow tempos, and the occasional touch of country-rock. It was released around the same time as Clayton Park and the songwriting follows along similar lines, although the sense of nostalgic wistfulness and witty wordplay comes across stronger in a setting where it isn’t competing with muscular stadium rock gestures. The album contrasts Plaskett’s health concerns with the recent death of his physician grandfather and in this case the ghostly, nearly skeletal aspects of the song seem somewhat deliberate. Songs like “I’d Rather Be Deadly Than Dead” show the way forward for the soon-to-be Emergency while “She Made A Wreck Outta Me” shows the deft touch for gentle East Coast folkish numbers that he would further explore throughout his career.
Down At The Khyber (2001)
The first album with the Emergency finds Plaskett and Co. casting about to find their footing. There’s a mashup of styles that tends to run together a bit; it’s a little bit country, a little bit East Coast folk-rock, a little bit stadium rock. The standouts on the album are pillars of hooky rock you can belt out in the shower: the title track, “Maybe We Should Just Go Home”, and of course “True Patriot Love”, a main contender for the new national anthem. The rest of the songs are mid-tempo classic rockers with pysch-country flourishes that are nice enough on their own but, when played together, drag on for longer than is really necessary. It’s a solid album, but the Emergency would go on to put out far stronger efforts as the 2000s wore on.
Truthfully, Truthfully (2003)
The Emergency found a real rock ‘n’ roll swagger on Truthfully, Truthfully. Everything that was great about stadium rock in the late 1970s – the stuff Plaskett had figured out by Clayton Park – is rediscovered here. These are songs that would (and do) sound great at twilight outdoor concerts, the kind where you’re gassed on tallboys of overpriced domestic beers and the band is playing to the edges of the shadows. The vintage tube-reverb sound plays into this in part but the real strength of the album is Mr. Plaskett himself. His voice, always an awkward and endearing yelp, seems much more lived-in on the album – check out the smooth vibe of his “murder, murder” croon on “Mystery & Crime”. Every song here is distinct – the hooks are huge and Plaskett navigates them confidently. “Work Out Fine” conjures up a reggae vibe while “Written All Over Me” and “Come On Teacher” slink along with a Stones-level strut. “Until You Came Along” is a devastating ballad that breaks into a hard stomp midway through to great effect. It’s odd – there aren’t many reviews of Truthfully, Truthfully on the web, and it’s a real shame, because it’s an album that should soundtrack any number of beery nights out.
La De Da (2005)
A solo Plaskett album, and a retreat from the rock ‘n’ roll heroics of his first two albums with the Emergency. La De Da takes a page from his first solo album, 1999’s In Need Of Medical Attention, and reprises the gentle, spare nature of that album. As such it gives a more intimate portrait of the man as an artist – a regular kind of guy who likes to watch bands and lies awake at night wondering if he’s doing the right thing. It allows for some experimentation – like the circus-chant working-class lament of “Television Set” or the lengthy confessional of “Non-Believer” – that would never fly in the long-hair arena-in-your-backyard element of the Emergency. The lesson of La De Da is that Joel Plaskett has a magic touch for songcraft, no matter the label.
Ashtray Rock (2007)
A triumph of album-making, the third Emergency album tells the story of the Ashtray Rock, a place in the woods near the Halifax suburb of Clayton Park where the local teenagers gather to get drunk and crank the volume on already-loud rock ‘n’ roll music. Two guys have a great time hanging out at the late-night parties but they have a falling out over a girl. One of them gets the girl for a little while, and the other one forms a rock ‘n’ roll band. As far as ideas for concept albums go, it’s squarely in the Who camp, but Plaskett and Co. pull it off at the height of their powers and it ends up being exhilirating rather than ridiculous. Part of the success in this is that the concept and lyrics are near and dear to Plaskett’s heart and he has said at times that some of the characters are his old bandmates in Thrush Hermit, and that the music-in-common part of “Penny For Your Thoughts” is tuned to his wife’s tastes. Regardless of the concept, of course, it’s an amazing lineup of songs that strike a clear tone and build hooks like skyscrapers. It was shortlisted for the 2007 Polaris Music prize (along with Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible) but eventually lost out to Patrick Watson’s Close To Paradise. This is too bad, really, since Ashtray Rock is the absolute peak of the Emergency, a rock ‘n’ roll triumph whose nostalgic paeans to youth and young love will ring on long after the last notes.
A return to solo album-making in a big way, Joel Plaskett’s third solo album is obsessed with the number three. To start with, the sprawling collection is three CDs, which seems a bit excessive and intimidating on first glance and continues to be as such throughout. There are nine songs on each disc, the release date was divisible by three, the ticket prices and seating arrangements for the Massey Hall album release concert all revolved around the number, etc. etc. etc. It’s all a very cutesy concept but Plaskett has the chops (and the cojones, really) to pull it all off. Each disc follows a theme: going away, being alone, and coming home. There is some experimentation, in keeping with the stretched-out nature of the project, but in general Plaskett keeps to the lighter side of his pop-rock songcraft and moves out into gentle acoustic folk work. It’s a quiet pile of songs that use an arsenal’s worth of instruments but it sticks to the familiar much more than his previous solo work, La De Da, did. Even a song like “Sailors Eyes”, which starts off with some dead-on East Coast folk instrumentation, ends up being a pretty standard Joel Plaskett Folk-Pop Song. By the time the end of the third disc rolls around, everything has blended together into mature adult-contemporary pop-rock and folk, like a sticky mass of dough that still needs to be baked into something tasty. Like most multi-disc albums, the tracklist could easily be pared down to a single disc of great songs. As it stands, 27 Joel Plaskett mid-tempo folky tracks really is a bit much after all.
Scrappy Happiness (2012)
A return to the Emergency, and a return to rock ‘n’ roll guitar heroics. Kick-off track “Lightning Bolt” slots back in the noisy guitar work that his solo work on Three eschewed and it’s followed by a wistful acoustic romp (“Harbour Boys”) that manages to sound distinct and exciting, which most of Three did not. As a whole it straddles a line between the smokey swagger of Truthfully, Truthfully or Ashtray Rock and the matured introspection of La De Da or Three, and it manages to keep its balance. It’s not as immediately gripping as either of those Emergency albums but it holds its own amongst the contemporary rock scene, scoring a Polaris longlist nomination for the 2012 award. It falls off in the back half, meandering through a series of down-in-the-mouth mid-tempo numbers, but it peaks one final time with the closing number, “North Star”, which reprises the sort of hook-and-melody that made the band their name across the country. It was the result of Plaskett and the band recording and releasing one track per week, and the off-the-cuff approach works well to channel the deeply ingrained love of rock ‘n’ roll that runs within them.