By Pamela Bellmore
There are likely to be two dominant schools of thought regarding Joshua Ketchmark’s Under Plastic Stars. The first will find Ketchmark’s twelve song collection to be a remarkably unified work, both lyrically and musically, with nary a hole to be seen in the track listing. Another point of view will likely peg Under Plastic Stars as a remarkably promising work slightly marred by too many similarities between songs and potentially benefitted by being pruned by a couple of tracks or else varied with one or two uniformly uptempo numbers. I side with the former. Ketchmark obviously wanted this to be an intimate affair and the predominantly mid-tempo cast of the material reinforces listeners’ concentration on the material. You can’t say this about a lot of releases, but the lyrics for Under Plastic Stars are important – even when they aren’t reaching high for some storytelling peak, they are obviously cut from a distinctly personal cloth and listeners will get a real sense of who Joshua Ketchmark is by album’s conclusion.
I particularly like the audaciousness of opening with the musically placid but vocally and lyrically heartbroken “We Were Everything”. Ketchmark throws us, from the first, into the emotional breach and his melodic talents as a songwriter make it a distinctly, if improbable, memorable listening experience. The acoustic guitar work is superb throughout the entire album, but this is one of many high points for playing on Under Plastic Stars. “Every Mystery”, the album’s second tune, is another track that does a superb job of mixing the singer/songwriter mold of the material with an appealing commercial edge that never overreaches. Some hints of Ketchmark’s more poetic side emerge here, but it’s a romantic song, in essence, and Ketchmark delivers it with the emotion such tracks demand.
“Let It Rain” and “Lucky at Leavin’”, in tandem, make for one of the album’s greatest peaks. The first is one of the more atmospheric performances on Under Plastic Stars, but it never sounds unnecessarily stagy or straining to impress listeners. I’m taken by how Ketchmark can use common turns of phrase like “let it rain”, a common song title throughout popular music history, and make something of his own from the familiar. “Lucky at Leavin’” is a beautifully lyrical folk tune, in essence, adorned with some discreet electric guitar and keyboard touches that flesh it out into something truly memorable. “Get Out Alive” has a fatalistic air not common to the other eleven songs and a dollop of blues coming through its arrangement while the late tune “Sweet Surrender” brings piano into the mix with powerful emotional impact. Under Plastic Stars reveals Ketchmark to be a truly talented figure and explains, in one fell swoop, why he’s been such a sought out collaborator and sideman for so many important performers and bands over the years.