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Music Picks

A Map of Joel Plaskett

The long and winding singer-songwriter hits a career apex with Three.

By Elaine Corden 7 May 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Elaine Corden leaves B.C. for the wilds of the Yukon this week.

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Plaskett: big man, small guitar.

Perhaps no musician more perfectly embodies the perils of the Canadian music industry than Joel Plaskett. The Nova Scotian singer-songwriter has been toiling away in the Tower of Song since 1992, peddling hyper-literate, hook-driven power pop, first with his band Thrush Hermit, and then as a solo artist, occasionally collaborating with other unsung musical workhorses. With a disproportionately small guitar strapped to his tall and thin frame, 34-year-old Plaskett has always cut a memorable figure as he traversed back and forth across the country, but it seems that, barring his minor hit "True Patriot Love" in 2001, he’s been unable get the recognition someone with his talents deserves.

A critical look at Plaskett’s career draws attention to a painful truth about making records north of the 49th parallel. Comprising the great middle class of Canuck musicianship is a glut of artists with the same hallmarks as Plaskett -- thoughtful lyrics and mastery of song craft, coupled with the deep humility that’s seemingly a side-effect of growing up in the shadow of a gorgeous geography.

Indeed, there are countless musicians working in the same milieu as Plaskett (The Weakerthans, Kathleen Edwards, Christine Fellows, The Acorn, Andrew Vincent -- the list really is endless). So many that it becomes easy to overlook the whole lot. That the aforementioned geographic reverie can read as nationalism to an audience outside Canada makes the struggle for Plaskett and musicians like him all the more difficult. How does an artist stand out when there’s an embarrassment of riches on offer?

With his latest effort, Three, Plaskett seems to have found a way. An audacious triple album comprised of 27 songs, Three comes off like the map to the apex of Plaskett’s career -- over a trio of half-hour discs, Plaskett documents his journey as a songwriter in Canada, from a kid in an isolated corner of the country, reaching out to find connection, to a grown man whose countless criss-crosses of the nation have moved him no closer to being able to define “home”. It’s a stunning accomplishment, and when one stops to consider the scope of the story being told, it’s a wonder he managed to keep it so short.

Opening the album is "Every Time You Leave," a chugging little tune that recalls, somewhat horrifyingly, the first addictive rush of The Eagles' "Take It Easy". It’s clear from the lyrical content and meandering blues guitar that this is a road album, meant to be consumed with junk food and roadside attractions along an endless stretch of highway. Thankfully, unlike "Take It Easy" or anything else Don Henley’s ponytail ever wrote, the songs on Three are guilt-free pleasures, hooky and hum-able, but also convincingly intelligent.

From the second track, "Through & Through & Through", it’s clear that Three is going to be ambitious, but also fun. The title itself hints at the thematic play on threes that permeate the album (other titles include "Gone, Gone, Gone", "Pine, Pine, Pine" and "Deny, Deny, Deny"), as do the vocal contributions from Ana Egge and Rose Cousins. Indeed, Egge and Cousins are a dominant presence on many of the 27 songs, adding a playful and sensual yin to Plaskett’s cerebral, sometimes dark, yang.

It’s hard to believe that Plaskett could commit 27 songs to one record and not hit a single clam, but miraculously, he does it. While one could imagine a triple-disc concept record about a Canadian singer-songwriter falling into obvious traps (over-earnesty, verbosity, or just plain sexlessness), Three succeeds by traipsing merrily across genres, with listener-friendly tunes taking precedence over heavy-handed thematics or show-offy muso jams.

Favourites crop up anew with each listen -- play Three as the soundtrack to a summer barbecue, and the folk-y tour song "Rollin', Rollin' Rollin' " might stand out for sheer catchiness. A listen on your own, by contrast, might draw out the paranoid beauty of "Drifter’s Raus", or the loveliness of Plaskett’s dread-tinged lullaby for his hometown, "Beyond, Beyond, Beyond".

Though obviously drawing on personal experiences, the songs on Three transcend Plaskett himself. The stories documented here could be that of a songwriting legend or an unknown solider, so perfectly do they convey the mammoth task of trying to find internal or external continuity while traversing a vast and diverse terrain. When Plaskett sings "I’m a working horse, a postage stamp/ Tune up my guitar, turn on my amp" on country stomper "Wishful Thinking", it’s not just his lament, but that of every talented musician who ever to tried to thumbtack a song onto the Canadian horizon.

Fifteen stars, out of a possible five. You do the math.

Joel Plaskett plays at the Vogue Theatre, on May 9.

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