Joel Plaskett Emergency

Truthfully, Truthfully

(MapleMusic; 2004)

By Scott Reid | 27 October 2003

Not many artists stick around the Halifax scene once they start to gain some international attention. And lets face it, it's easy to say "who can blame them?" in light of the habitual overlooking of the area's consistently impressive and autonomous output (most recently the likes of Buck 65, The Heavy Blinkers, the recently re-formed for a one-off record Super Friendz, the now defunct The Plan or even Plaskett's own former band, Thrush Hermit, to name a few) and the overwhelming temptation of moving west to the nation's more recognized scenes in Montreal, Toronto & Vancouver. Despite being a great city to live in, Halifax certainly isn't an easy place to hang around in to get recognized for your achievements. Buck 65 pulled it off, but it took help from Radiohead plugs and his acceptance in the Anticon collective. Super Friendz did well through strong word of mouth (though really only in Canada), and Matt Murphy still took off to Toronto to start his current band, The Flashing Lights. Then there's Sloan, who also jumped ship in time to become the east coast's most successful indie act of the 90s and though they are still often associated with Halifax (and rightfully so), they all happily call Toronto their home these days, several of them just blocks away from my house. Jay sightings every week? Alright!

Then there's the exceptions. After Thrush Hermit called it quits in 1999, Plaskett certainly could've head west to explore his solo career which started the year of Hermit's split (with In Need of Medical Attention) and has continued with 2001's excellent Down at the Khyber and, now, Truthfully Truthfully. His choice to stay in Halifax is a respectable, if not a slightly confusing, one --especially considering the level of attention he received from the British hype-mags (Q, Mojo and NME, for instance) that should have, by all rights, made his last album much bigger than it ended up being. After a couple of great singles that seemed to go nowhere ("Careless Wonder," "Maybe We Should Just Go Home" and "True Patriot Love") outside of sporadic MuchMusic plays or the odd plug on Going Coastal, Plaskett returned to the studio with his skilled band to record its follow-up. Though perhaps my focus on him staying on Halifax is trivial; It's not like he only plays shows in Halifax or refuses to sell his albums outside of Nova Scotia, after all. These days, I suppose it isn't so much where you live but how well your music is able to get out there, right? Plaskett even ponders it himself on one of Truthfully's best tracks, "Work Out Fine," slyly singing "All my friends, where did they go? To Montreal, Toronto/ All my friends, they split too soon." But I'll let others debate all of this.

His first record for MapleMusic, Truthfully continues to follow in his classic rock/Zeppelin-meets-Guess Who-meets-David Wilcox channeled through the familiar east coast pop sound that Plaskett helped popularize in the mid to late nineties. With the new album, though, Plaskett trades off the masterstrokes of "I'd Rather Be Deadly Than Dead," "Light of the Moon" or the stunning duet with Ruth Minnikin (currently in the Heavy Blinkers), "Blinding Light," for a collection of classic rock explorations and tongue-in-cheek Can-rock that nearly ruins the album's highlights with its poor lyrics. The real detrimental flaw of the record is its inability to maintain any sort of consistency. Let me explain.

The album opens up with two of its finest tracks, the cleverly arranged "Written All Over Me" and "Work Out Fine," the closest the album comes to Khyber's subtle hooks. The Thrush Hermit tune "Mystery and Crime" follows and though slightly awkward at moments, still comes off a winner. But then comes two of the album's absolutely putrid moments: first, the power-pop abortion of "Extraordinary" that perhaps wouldn't be so terrible if it weren't for the slicked-out production and lyrics that are either annoyingly tongue-in-cheek/ironic or just in poor taste. Just how bad, you ask? Examples!:

1. "I was doing 140 in my SUV/ Cruising with my girl it was twenty after three/ I was talking about changing my cell phone plan/ When my girl says, 'Baby you're a boy, you're not a man'/ 'You're not extraordinary, but if you want to be out of the ordinary, you don't need technology!'"

2. "I was at the post office buying a stamp/ Thinking that the girl behind the counter was 'fine'/ I said 'you think this'll get there by Friday, ma'am?'/ she says 'I get off work at quarter after nine'/ Extraordinary! Baby if you want to be out of the ordinary, come and dance with me!"

"Come On, Teacher" follows (another Hermit song) and though the clever nods to "Hot For Teacher" and instrumentation making the song far more interesting, the lyrics continue to be abysmal: "I'm the bad ass of your classroom/ Now you have a bad ass classroom . . . / If for some reason I am tardy/ It's cause I went out last night to party!" Again, either painfully ironic or sincere lyrics from a man from a man who obviously hasn't mastered the tricky art of deliciously tongue-in-cheek rock ala Louden Wainwright III, Zappa or, more accurately, the less annoying They Might Be Giants material (this all depends on your tolerance for TMBG and mine has always been pretty low).

"Red Light" ends the first half on a much more promising note, the Guess Who-ish chorus and tolerable lyrics towering the song above its two predecessors. Unfortunately, the record quickly dives again, first with the MOR radio-friendly shot at a mellow Pixies-ish arrangement that soars in its chorus (one of the best he's written yet) but is brought down to embarrassing lows in its verses, cemented in the falsetto whine of "better learn to fly" that Plaskett somehow saw as a suitable segue to the hard-hitting chorus. Then there's the cliché love song, "You Came Along," with a stilted melody and Halmark-influenced lyrics; "True love is sharper than stones and sticks/ louder than bombs and clocks that tick/ I feel as deep as the ocean blue/ When I'm standing here with you."

"Lights Down Low" floats by without leaving much of a mark one way or the other, but "The Day You Walked Away" shines --finally proving what Plaskett is capable of when he isn't trying to be a comedy-rock star or Bon Jovi-ish romantic crooner. Though the lyrics are at times just as hard to swallow ("You loved me then/ but you don't anymore" sounds like a Dashboard out-take), the strong melody and sincere tinge in his voice sorely lacking from most of the record render it, much like Khyber's "Unconditional Love," extremely charming. "All the Pretty Faces" and "Heart to Heart With Lionel" (surprisingly penned by drummer David Marsh) end the album much like it began, with an enthralling rush of rock hooks and inoffensive lyrics.

It's not that Truthfully Truthfully is a complete bomb, but it's certainly not a worthy follow-up of his first two records, both of which showed immense promise that seemed to confirm that he'd never churn out of the kind of tunes that drag this album down. His talent is still very much apparent in sporadic bursts, but he's going to have to decide exactly what kind of artist he wants to be and focus before realizing his full potential, because this album's mixture of tongue-in-cheek pop, FM radio fodder, east coast indie and classic rock creates an album far too lost in its own scattered ambition to be thoroughly enjoyed.