Bill and Joel Plaskett
Anyone who’s seen them sharing the stage in recent years may have anticipated songwriter, producer and guitarist Joel Plaskett would cut an entire album with his dad, Bill Plaskett, from whom he clearly inherited some of his musical sensibility. (The musical influences go both ways, though – British Isles folk from Bill meets eclectic, jangly roots pop and rock from Joel.)
The pair gel on folkie songs – most original, but a few traditional – about family history, migrating across Canada for work, poverty, love and occasionally politics.
It’s on the last subject that they run into difficulty. In Solidarity, the duo picked a hummable but problematic title track. Coming at a time when that word generally indicates solidarity with marginalized groups or movements, their take on the topic means solidarity with family, friends and those that Bill and Joel have encountered on their travels. Though well-intentioned and vaguely autobiographical, the song comes off as weak. (It became the subject of a fierce and important Facebook thread about racial segregation and the Halifax music scene.)
However, the Plasketts get it right more than they get it wrong on the rest of the album. On Dragonfly, a song indebted to late guitarist Bert Jansch and local East Coast hero Al Tuck, Joel meditates on a hectic state of mind from the perspective of a dead insect. It has a New Agey feel, with an Eastern-sounding tuning (DADGAD). “You live in nostalgia and fear for your future,” he sings. “This age of distraction is no age at all.”
Meanwhile, the classic-sounding folk song We Have Fed You All For 1000 Years is an antidote to Solidarity, with 100-year-old lyrics about the brutality of capitalism sung feelingly by Bill.
Not all of the album is so serious. The duo clearly fly by the seat of their pants on the quickly recorded Help Me Somebody Depression Blues. Sung by Bill, it sounds like an early Bob Dylan tune, with Joel scrappily playing drums while Bill is lyrically riffing. It’s good to hear them having fun in the studio.
On the whole, this overwhelmingly feels like more of a Joel album than an evenly split one, which isn’t surprising given he wrote more than half the material. Some of songs – The Next Blue Sky, Blank Cheque, Up In The Air – sound like a Joel Plaskett record. His familiar use of melody and rhyme, married with more Celtic instrumentation (including bouzouki and fiddle), is something he explored on his last album, The Park Avenue Sobriety Test.
Bill, for his part, sounds tentative on No Sight Compares, a love song he wrote in the early 70s. It’s warbly and fragile, but I’m glad it’s there; and he shines on Jim Jones, a traditional tune about being shipped off to Australia. On closer On Down The River, the Plasketts achieve what it sounds like they set out to do: connect past and future and tie together geographically and temporally disparate generations. Joel stays true to the feel of an 80s demo Bill did on this one, and that was a good call. The power of the song lies in Bill tapping potent memories from his childhood.
Top track: On Down The River
Bill and Joel Plaskett play Massey Hall on April 8. See listing.