JOEL PLASKETT with PETER ELKAS at Hugh's Room (2261 Dundas West), Friday (April 29). $15-$17. 416-531-6604. Rating: NNNNN
Canuck indie rock icon Joel Plaskett's got a rep as a guy who tears shit up at his live shows. Catch him onstage backed by his Emergency band and you'll see sweat dripping off the lanky dude's shaggy head as he shimmies and shakes and yelps at the top of his lungs.
Because cranking it out takes such a toll on his pipes, Plaskett has been known to spend chunks of time on tour whispering for most of the day, just to make sure he can pull off a proper rock 'n' roll howl after dark.
But when he rings me early on a Sunday morning, a few hours after playing tunes from his great new La De Da (MapleMusic) disc for kids at Hamilton's Casbah, his voice comes across loud and clear. What gives?
"Normally, I carry lots of paranoia and stress in my voice," admits Plaskett. "I'm loving singing this record because I get to explore the lower part of my register and it's way more low-key, so that anxiety isn't there." He pauses for a second, then adds, "Although, truth be told, I'll still belt it out at the end of the shows."
So don't worry, hardcore Thrush Hermit fans - your man hasn't gone totally soft.
Still, the rootsy, sepia-toned songs on La De Da reveal a more mature songwriter than the guy who bashed out wiry end-of-semester party rock on 2003's Truthfully Truthfully.
After touring the hell out of that record - which won the best rock recording prize at 2004's East Coast Music Awards - Plaskett realized his new half-formed material didn't really mesh with his band's frenetic assault.
While tossing around the idea of making a more stripped-down, introspective solo record with long-time pal and collaborator Ian McGettigan, the pair remembered that, a few years back, a super-fan in Arizona had offered Plaskett the use of his studio - and swimming pool - gratis. So our man stocked his Suburban with old-school instruments - his grandfather's banjo, an acoustic guitar from the 30s, a sweet mandolin - and fleshed out his song sketches amidst thunderstorms and eavesdropping in sketchy motels during a southwestern road trip last summer.
He wound up at Bob Hoag's home studio in Mesa, AZ, and flew McGettigan in a few days later. The three spent their evenings recording and the sweltering days eating burritos from down the street. The result is a warm, tastefully arranged collection of songs about loneliness, hometown love, struggling with secular faith and human fallibility that should please Magnolia Electric Co. and Neil Young fans.
Some are calling La De Da Plaskett's Nebraska, which suits him fine.
"Does that mean my next album's gonna be Born In The USA?" he asks, laughing sheepishly. "I was in the mood for a record like this one, but I'm not saying that I won't go back to making rock."
Plaskett still cranks it on La De Da - the disc is front-loaded with some grittier, shambling rockers - but what stands out is the more contemplative stuff, like the he said, she said duet Nina And Albert (written after Plaskett overheard a woman reassuring her jealous boyfriend in an adjacent hotel room) and the reflective travelogue Natural Disaster, which features beautiful work by steel guitar ace Jon Rauhouse.
Rauhouse ended up on the album almost by accident.
"I originally wanted Neko Case to sing the girl's part on Nina And Albert, cuz she was staying in Tucson, which is pretty close to Mesa. And when I called Mike Belitsky from the Sadies to get her contact info, he suggested I get in touch with Jon.
"He was such a pro, man," Plaskett continues, "and his style fell exactly in the realm of steel guitar that I envisioned. He showed up at the studio, played perfectly, and an hour and a half later he walked out."
Plaskett's still infatuated with the hometown he never left - something he sings about on album-closer Love This Town - and the former Hermit has every intention of staying put.
"I feel like I'm part of a community here that's way bigger than just the music scene. My dad's working for the city now, and people come up to him just to say, 'I heard your son's song on the radio.' Or I'll go into the Italian Market to buy spaghetti and people will say they like my music. It's pretty amazing."