If there's any experience that's universal in post-war North America, it's going to high school, falling for the wrong person and suffering untold angst as a result. While Joel Plaskett is hardly the first guy to write a song about this all-too-common turn of events, very few have gone so far as to spin the tale into a concept album, which is what Plaskett and his band the Emergency have done with Ashtray Rock. Thankfully, Ashtray Rock is on a par with the late and lamented television series Freaks and Geeks in terms of getting the details of life in the teenage nation just right -- in Plaskett's tale, two guys lose their friendship when they fall for the same girl and vie for her attentions during evenings spent getting drunk on cheap beer at the local teenage hangout (the Ashtray Rock of the title). In time, one wins her heart (but only for a while) while the other forms a rock & roll band. Plaskett's narrative isn't a marvel of originality, but that's also part of what makes it effective -- if you didn't live out this story (or something like it), you doubtless know someone who did, and the bits where the kids compare notes on music, make out while trapped in a snowstorm or struggle to make sense of why they can't be loved by the objects of their obsessions all ring painfully true. Just as importantly, Plaskett's music fits this tale perfectly, nestled between smart power pop and vintage hard rock, and his vague vocal resemblance to Jackson Browne helps give this material an appropriate period patina without forcing the issue. Ashtray Rock is by turns funny, smart and heartbreaking in its tales of problematic adolescent romance, and the music is an ideal match, hitting a strong emotional pitch without sinking into melodrama, and nearly anyone who (a) loves rock & roll, or (b) still thinks about their eleventh grade crush late at night will love this album.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming