Sunday, October 11, 2009

Album Of The Week: Joel Plaskett- Three

You know, I can't really name any great double albums from this decade. Sure, the Flaming Lips are set to release one in a few days, but other than that, I feel like this was mostly the decade of bands either releasing really long single CDs or trimming back to vinyl record-style runtimes of 30 to 45 minutes. Hell, even Radiohead--often derided for pretentiousness and artsy excess--didn't end up releasing Kid A and Amnesiac as the double album they were originally designed to be. So it's kind of astonishing to sit here and see someone releasing not just a double album but a triple album. More astonishing still is the fact that it's a fairly consistent and excellent triple album set.

Judging by the Ashtray Rock album that he put out a few years ago with his Emergency band (an album I have somehow lost), Joel Plaskett is one of Canada's best kept secrets. His voice is somewhere between Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Art Alexasis of Everclear, and Tom Petty, and his rustic tinged music is tangentially related to all of these, between its catchy classicist 70s rock/pop and singer/songwriter styles. Plaskett makes the sort of music that lacks any pretense of gimmick: it initially strikes you as almost vanilla and plain due to its stripped down, back-to-basics instrumentation. But this lack of genre bending and stylistic affectations works in his favor because he's such a consistent songwriter. Some surprising hooks and structures pop up here and there, and even though a lot of his lyrics seem to rhyme (normally this kind of writing gets under my nerves and draws attention to itself), they work for him, somehow.

Three CDs of material may initially seem like a lot, but they're all under 40 minutes and work together thematically as well as sonically. Taking the triple album concept as a starting point, Plaskett fills Three with songs that repeat words, phrases, or numbers in, you guessed it, groups of three. Moreover, the three discs each have a certain feel that I couldn't quite nail down until I read a quote off the Wikipedia entry for the album. Plaskett mentions that the discs represent going away, being alone, and coming home. That is to say, the album has a road weary/road-warrior-musician-on-tour dichotomy.

I've been commuting to work and driving around with Three for a bit over a week now, and here's what I've come up with. Disc one feels like the cautious enthusiasm of someone who doesn't necessarily hate going on tour, but also doesn't have the same youthful vigor of a 20 something anymore. 'Wishful Thinking' is an excellent seven minute romp that underscores this theme for me with its resigned "but if wishful thinking is all I've got/keep on thinking wishful thoughts" lyrics. The song has that Grateful Dead 'Truckin' sense of movement and expanse to it, but is not as unhinged and committed.

Meanwhile, disc two is pure tour blues. I picture Plaskett locked in some hotel room, drinking a bottle of wine and plucking on a guitar while wishing he was home with his friends and family. Maybe I'm projecting too much, but whenever I listen to this disc I get a sense of nostalgia and wistfulness for things that have passed as well as the things that are waiting for you when you return home. 'New Scotland Blues' is particularly affecting, describing a bummed out late October scene of regrets, travel, and moving past a bad love. The lyric "If I sound cold put on some gloves" is pretty damn clever, but I also like the chorus "I play for money/but I sing for free/my New Scotland blues." Going off my Grateful Dead comparison, this disc is definitely the analogue to their Workingman's Dead and American Beauty albums. None of these are strictly depressing and purely acoustic albums, but the vibe of burnt out late nights and singing/drinking your blues away persist.

The final disc is the wild card, suggesting the delirious vibe you get when you've been up too late for too many nights in a row...but the thing you're working towards is worth all the insanity. If you've ever seen a band on the final show of their tour, or anyway on its tail end, you might have an inkling of the feel of the songs here. They all fit together but also somehow contradict each other, from the short 'Precious, Precious, Precious' that serves as a peppier coda to 'Rewind, Rewind, Rewind', to the exhausted 'Lazy Bones', to the bluegrass stomp of 'Rollin', Rollin', Rollin', and the final 'On & On & On', which at twelve minutes is paradoxically too long and too short, seeming to roll one long song and then two shorter and funner songs all into one. It's the sort of thing you imagine the band would end the final show of the tour with, the last rambling energies coursing out through them before they do their final bow and sleep for three days once they get home.

Three is the sort of album review that writes itself once you've decided if it's good or not. On one hand, if it's bad, you can say that the band should've focused on just a single disc of material. On the other hand, if it's good, you find yourself giving a caveat emptor that not every song is great, the album sags in places, or this or that disc is weaker than the others. But anymore I feel like with double and triple albums, if you're in for a penny you're in for a pound, and the general flaws and demands of longer works are probably already obvious to you. All of that said, then: Three is a fantastic album even if it may not always hit a home run. It has some weak spots, and disc two is the weakest of the lot because you really have to be in the mood to listen to it. But hey, The White Album is my favorite Beatles album as much for its longwinded-ness and low points as for its best moments, so Three is easy for me to recommend. And love.

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