By Mike Yoder
Joshua Ketchmark’s album Under Plastic Stars opens with the gentle strains of “We Were Everything” and, as the past tense of the title implies, it finds the singer/songwriter in a downcast mood. Ketchmark comes across as an essentially romantic songwriter here, adept with the time tested formulas of tunes about heartache, but it’s far from the only ace in his deck. “Every Mystery” continues in a similar vein as the opener, but it’s here where we get more of a sense about Ketchmark’s lyrical eye for detail and his ability to manifest the personal in a manner anyone can relate to. There’s no doubt that this is distinctly adult fare, but melody is another of Ketchmark’s redeeming graces and his fecund qualities in this area make Under Plastic Stars an even more enjoyable listening experience.
“Let It Rain” is one of the album’s standout songs both musically and lyrically. The nuance put into this track, including even a bit of steel guitar, sets it several notches above much more paint by numbers and commercialized efforts in this vein and Ketchmark does an admirable job of taking a well used turn of phrase and building something around it that’s uniquely his own. There’s some delicate and beautiful keyboard playing, courtesy of Ketchmark, adorning the song “Lucky at Leavin’” and the near crystalline vocal Ketchmark delivers is worth the price of the album alone. It’s the mark of a great singer how he takes familiar sentiments and invests them with something of the new.
“Hereafter” has some appropriately ethereal electric guitar lines, laden with just enough echo to achieve the desired atmospherics, and the steady pulse of the song gives it a solid rhythmic structure. The musical picture darkens a little with the song “Get Out Alive” and it stands, at album’s end, as one of the strongest character studies on the release. The guitar work is particularly good and accompanies Ketchmark sympathetically. The album hits a commercial high point of sorts with the track “Saturday Night”, but Ketchmark’s efforts in this style are much more polished and more substantive than releases from his crasser counterparts. “Sweet Surrender” is even better as Ketchmark incorporates piano with the song’s musical attack and the rhythm section of drummer Kenny Wright and bassist Dave Webb impart monumental emotional heft to the piece.
Another great moment comes with the aching character study “17” and it’s, once again, a minor marvel to behold how deftly Ketchmark avoids all too familiar tropes and clichés associated with his subject matter. These are flesh and blood tunes in every respect and, even at his most obvious, Ketchmark reaches far beyond a cookie cutter mold for the material and claim the subject matter as his own. The final song “The Great Unknown” brings Under Plastic Stars to a surprisingly zesty end and Ketchmark delivers a singing performance brimming with urgency and inspiration. This is a singer/songwriter album, through and through, that nonetheless manages to hack its way through thickets of tradition to find a path all its own.