Here we check back in with Joel Plaskett nearly a decade after Truthfully Truthfully, and times have changed, but the music is as bright and wonderful to listen to as ever. The earlier album showcased Plaskett’s personality by matching his self-effacing wit with his rock bravado. Scrappy Happiness is a record by the same artist now in his mid-to-late 30’s. He’s mellowed out some and tamed his incorrigible nature to that of a sly, knowing elder. It’s not often I feel like I know enough about an artist just from music that I can go on like this in a review, but Joel Plaskett albums have a welcoming quality to them. It’s not that they’re autobiographical or confessional, per se, but they’re open and honest about what he thinks of the world: he has taken whatever’s inside him and made some damn good music out of it. Whenever I think of his music, I think of what Roger Ebert said about David Byrne in Stop Making Sense: “He seems so happy to be alive and making music.” “You’re Mine,” where the romance is incidental, just part of the overall atmosphere of youth and exuberance. On “You’re Mine,” he breathlessly proclaims his love for Husker Du, declares he’s Traveling through space and time / To keep my love alive” and screams like a triumphant warrior, "It’s 1995! / I’m yours and you are mine, mine, mine!"
Near as I can figure, the objective of With the Beatles was to keep the party going. In 1963 there was absolutely no telling when the gravy train from a pop rock quartet was due to stop, so the best you could hope to do is repeat the same formula as last time and hope lightning struck twice. Luckily, the magic was far from gone. It certainly helps that they were indeed “The Goddamn Beatles,” full of life and energy and charm. Their singles, like “She Loves You,” required them to be commercial, upbeat and energetic. On the album, they could explore their own character a bit more through covers and downtempo tracks that didn’t play to the idea of what “The Beatles” were on the radio.
The first song on Joel Plaskett’s 2003 album, Truthfully Truthfully, begins with a tangled, twangy sounding guitar, before thickening into a heavy riff that marks the influence of 70’s rock that threads throughout Joel’s rock songwriting. On Truthfully, there’s a confidence to the music that almost kids the listener, matched with the way the lyrics show a very Canadian interest in self-deprecation and suspicion of success. Truthfully, Truthfully almost has two lives, that arena-rock bravado and that shy earnestness. Joel’s songwriting keeps the subject matter light and several degrees away from anger or melodrama, but there are gentle putdowns, beginning with that first track, where his admission that "I’ve got trouble written all over me" sounds less like a boast than a complaint. Another great track is “Mystery & Crime,” where Plaskett muses over a relationship gone horrible wrong, where he is the “guilty” party, but still feels put-upon as the situation gets blown out of proportion ("I go to all the parties / And I never have a good time / It’s like we’re acting out a movie / Mystery & Crime / I never meant to hurt her / Now everybody’s screaming murder, murder, murder…") Truth is, on this site, I tend not to fixate too much on lyrics, because I review a lot of music where the lyrics aren’t inherent to the enjoyment of the song. But Joel is a for-sure true-blue songwriter. He knows how to turn a phrase, and how to craft a song that will service that.
Do you ever go for a long drive at night? Maybe just go for a spin around the block, just to clear you head, you find yourself mesmerized by the shadows cast by the dim streetlights and driving for a lot longer than you thought you would. C’Mon, by Low, feels like that light to me. It’s focused, directing me down a long, dark road. For long stretches of the album, singers Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker sing-chant fragmented lyrics over gradually morphing instruments. Consider the 8-minute long “Nothing But Heart,” which stretches its main phrase ("I’m nothing but heart") to its breaking point as the guitar parts rise and fall and squeal and sing in the background and the drums chug on. There are other lyrics, but I think you’re not even meant to hear about them. The album is about its spare soundscapes.
There’s a trap with a band’s second album, which I’ve talked about before. If you loved the first one, as I did Zeus’, it inevitably becomes a competition, and the second album inevitably loses. The first album gives you a new experience, makes an impression. If the second album is just more of the same, it pales in comparison. If it tries to find a new direction, it could be a betrayal. For me, on first listen, this was closer to the latter. It sounds close enough, but there’s nothing on this album quite as immediately pleasurable to me as “Marching Through Your Head” or the rest of Say Us’ second half. This one is actually kinda distant and obscure and experimental, and even if the first one was inventive and odd in its own way it sure did feel “here.” This is an album I had to go to. One I had to figure out. That has its own rewards.
Is it me, or is there a hidden undertone of sadness in a lot of dance music? The music designed to get people to move their bodies can’t quite tear them away from the pain that plagues their very souls or end the turmoil in which they live their lives, numbing themselves to the burdens of life and trying to forget for a stolen instant on a dark, crowded dancefloor, to escape and pretend they are just a glorious carefree being among many submitting to the groove before finally crashing back down to reality at the end of the night? It’s not just me, is it?
I was listening to this album during the extremely rainy May of 2011. The damp, grey environment may have informed my opinion of it, but I do always think those things about dance music, especially this album, how there’s a bittersweetness bordering on outright sorrow. I remember listening to it on the subway and on long, chilly walks for coffee (where a lot of my music listening is done.)
Incidentally, iTunes indicates I only listened to it the whole way through 3 times, which is shocking. These days I never feel like I can formulate a complete opinion on an album on less than 10 complete listens. It’s a lot of music, and dance isn’t my favourite genre, but this is a really solid set. I picked it up in a deliberate effort to find more female artists for my blog, which also netted Lissie’s excellent Catching a Tiger album, Lykke Li’s powerful Wounded Rhymes, and Adele’s 19, which I prefer to 21 for its less-produced, less-hit-ready feel.
There’s beauty in this set, but not a pretty, precious beauty. A heavy, at times difficult-to-stand type of beauty. Sonically, it has a lot in common with Coldplay, and should theoretically appeal to the same audience, but somehow I can see them being turned off by how much more “real” this band is. They pitch their music on the same grandiose level, but back it up with thrilling, satisfying substance that makes for a compelling set that gets better with each listen as it absorbs you and gradually reveals itself. James’ singer, Tim Booth, sings with conviction, maybe even romanticism tempered by realism. Like a grounded, worn out Bono.
The Night Before & The Morning After are a set of complimentary mini-albums. They’re consistent enough that they can easily be heard together, but distinct enough that you can see why they are kept separate. The former is fittingly mysterious: a tease, grandiose and confident, shielded by the night. The latter is more subtle, detail-oriented. There’s one song on it, “Kaleidoscope,” which seems to be about one thing, then reveals its true nature and hits you right in the gut. Morning After ends with a lonely, quiet track called “Fear,” which lingers a whole on its way out the door. If you opt to listen to The Morning After second, you will be left a-quiver. But it might be even too jarring to go from that to The Night Before’s opening number…
If you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you’ll remember I don’t spend a ton of time discussing lyrics. As much as a good lyric can really make a song, my way of thinking about music doesn’t really depend on them too much. There have been a lot of extremely lyrically-well-written albums on this site, whose words I just didn’t pay much mind to. I missed a ton of the nuance in The Hold Steady’s Stay Positive. And after reading numerous write-ups of Arcade Fire’s Funeral, I still don’t quite “hear” what they’re singing about, and that’s one of my favourite albums I’ve written about yet. It’s a bit of a shame, that lyrics often make up a huge amount of the work that goes into an album, and yet they comprise so little of the listening pleasure for me. St. Vincent’s lyrics, for instant, are weirdly brilliant. They’re often abstract, or impressionistic, (and often directly confrontational) and intricately-crafted, woven into the art of the album, to the point where they cross-reference each other on a few tracks. The lyric sheet of this album is quite frankly drowning with brilliance.
I first heard this album about a year ago, when it had just been released. Because I had just reviewed Seldom-Seen Kid, I thought it was wise to wait a while before really digging into it, but also it wasn’t as immediately gripping as that album. The opening song, “The Birds” is a methodical, cerebral 8-minute build that sets the tone for the album: one of reflection and rehabilitation of the past. It’s much lighter and friendlier than its predecessor, and there’s nothing as immediately pleasurable as “Grounds For Divorce,” but Build a Rocket Boys has a few secrets of its own. In listening to, and preparing to review, this album, I reaffirmed a few things:
1) Reviewing a follow-up album is always a crappy assignment because your opinion is going to be informed by that earlier one, and as I preached in my Arctic Monkeys/Strokes review way back, that is both useful and not. I now know what I like about Elbow, and I have to try not to be upset that this isn’t literally Seldom-Seen Kid Part II.
2) I’m so glad I don’t work on a deadline.
Something I don’t like to talk about very often is the very real social aspect of listening to music. There are a lot of thorny sociological issues that go along with any album, stuff that I’m aware of, but not as comfortable or competent in talking about. My policy has always been to look at an album stripped of its baggage and determine, based on my subjective (but critical) tastes, what’s valuable about it and if people should hear it. That said, there’s the case of Big Star. I was going to say “There are two types of music geek, those who’ve heard Big Star and those who haven’t” but the thing is, I’m not even sure I can recognize you as a true music geek if you’re not familiar with this record.
That’s not a statement that has anything to do with Big Star’s music, what it sounds like, or what it means to me. You could hear this album, dislike it, and still call yourself a music geek. Big Star as a band and a musical entity has two lives: Its content and its reputation. It has a marginal place in mainstream music history, but has been taken up by music writers like myself with great passion. Finding it, and making the decision to listen to it (not even liking it, just hearing it at all) means you have done some serious digging, and are trusting tried-and-true devotees in their opinion, and have the right frame of mind to judge. Basically, to me, the moment you decide Big Star is something you need to hear even once, is the moment you truly dive into the great depths of popular music. There’s a lot of dialogue about this band and shockingly little of it has to do with what they actually sound like. When I first got the disc, I was worried that nothing it contained could justify that reputation. But if you take that leap, you will be rewarded.