For anyone who came of age in the '90s, Joel Plaskett's new album, Ashtray Rock, will likely hit home. Partly a sentimental look back at the days when bands issued their first recordings on cassette, partly an ode to the loss of innocence, the disc recalls a time when mixed tapes were lovingly crafted and exchanged by friends and lovers.
"There was magic to mixed tapes," says Plaskett, calling from his Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, home. "You had to sit there and listen to all the songs, you couldn't just burn them onto an iPod. So when you listened to a mixed tape somebody made, you knew they sat there for 60 or 90 minutes and dubbed those songs. And some of them have those beautiful little glitches, and you don't get that with CDs. There's something about a mixed tape that's so cool that way."
The line "Yeah I loved our band, I don't have one regret/I even like our first records on cassette" opens and closes the disc, which tells the tale of a band torn apart when a girl comes between two of the members. Reuniting with producer Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar, who produced last year's Make a Little Noise EP, Plaskett has come up with what is easily his most ambitious work yet. A concept album, Ashtray Rock–his third full-length with his band, the Emergency–comes complete with interludes, instrumental bits, a spoken-word spot, songs that work best in context, and others that stand alone. Of the last category, the first single "Fashionable People" is bubbling, infectious pop mixing power chords, handclaps, and a borderline-silly falsetto chorus. The 12-string-based "Face of the Earth" features a soaring melody and heartbroken lyrics, and "Nothing More to Say" plays out as a string-enhanced, stinging show of resentment and anger.
The disc is also probably the East Coast musician's most personal. He expects that a few of his former bandmates in '90s recording act Thrush Hermit will wonder if some of the songs are about them, while one of the main characters' musical tastes are modelled on those of Plaskett's real-life wife, graphic artist Rebecca Kraatz.
"She loves music, but she likes very specific music. For the most part, she doesn't care too much about what's being made today. She loves the 1950s. For her, music ended with the Beatles," he says with a laugh. "It's like the Beatles took the jobs away from all the rock 'n' rollers she loves. Like, Bo Diddley couldn't get a gig."
The influence of Kraatz, a fan of late-'50s and early-'60s vocal groups like the Fleetwoods, is most apparent in the doo-wop influenced "Penny for Your Thoughts". Plaskett's old band, meanwhile, lurks in nostalgic songs like "Soundtrack for the Night", which takes a wistful look back at driving around with nothing better to do than listen to tunes with friends.
Plaskett says he wanted to tell a story on Ashtray Rock that's as much about those early days as it is about his life right now. "It's about Rebecca, and my previous band Thrush Hermit, and the balance of going away and staying true to your friends and loved one. And then, of course, the power of alcohol."
The Joel Plaskett Emergency plays the Commodore Ballroom on Friday (May 18).