By Alonzo Evans
Illinois-bred singer/songwriter Joshua Ketchmark has built a slow and steady career on excellent musical craftsmanship and stellar guitar playing that’s spanned a dozen releases to date. He’s brushed shoulders with Melissa Etheridge and has worked with the production teams that have brought to life recordings by Elvis Costello, Don Henley and Ryan Adams. In a tough modern musical climate where it’s very difficult to get your own original compositions out there for the public to hear, Ketchmark has accomplished way more than most. It’s his talent that his gotten the singer/guitarist to where he is and it’s his talent that can be heard all across his latest release, Under Plastic Stars.
The album opens with a gentle, trotting acoustic number that’s draped in dusty folk influences and tinged of rural, back porch country jamming. With his heartfelt lyrics detailing a passionate relationship and instrumentation that puts a production focal point on Joshua’s breathy voice and muscular acoustic guitars while the rhythm section dives into a little groove that pushes the material forward with grace and goodness. Subtle church organ atmosphere is introduced on the twinkling, starlit magic of “Every Mystery.” Gorgeous acoustic guitars draped in reverb and slight echo provide a launch pad for Ketchmark’s earthy, infectious vocal delivery that paints a forlorn picture of being pushed away by the one that you’re in love with. This cut leads directly into the harder, bluesy 6-strings, dark keyboard shades and rumbling bass lines of the crunching “Let It Rain.” An electric guitar buzz sometimes cuts through the thick, dense instrumentals and the vocals slip more into a heartbroken roar that still shows a surprising amount of melody and restraint. Even slide guitar makes an accompaniment appearance to round out the sound on this excellent number.
Breezy and autumnal in its aura, “Lucky at Leavin’” pairs an energetic acoustic line to smooth flowing melodies with a recording quality that leaves the impression of Josh playing alone onstage at a large concert hall. Sweet back-up vocal harmonies from an unknown female guest provide further emotive expression to the song while lap-steel and layered keys add to a great deal of texture to the music’s many charms. “Hereafter” returns to semi-rugged country/blues backed by a rousing drumbeat, lamenting and powerful vocals overflowing with stunning vibrato and several climactic breaks where the volume swells and the instrumental tones rise to the sky. Hymnal organ playing and a fireball electric guitar solo renders “Get out Alive” an edge that only further mixes up the varied moods and sounds on the record. Elsewhere the entirely acoustic “Harm’s Way” sucks the ears in from the very first note, the vocal/piano led soul tune “Sweet Surrender” really provides a showcase for Ketchmark’s gripping singing and awesome multi-instrumentalism and closer “The Great Unknown” mingles rock volume and tempos with country music’s ol’ fashioned vocal harmony standards and simplistic but hook-y guitar/rhythm shakedowns.
Joshua Ketchmark pulls out all of the stops on Under Plastic Stars. With excellent musical chops, stellar songwriting skills and great arrangements that blend a multitude of different instruments together, there’s not a misstep to be found on this album. It’s certainly won over this first time listener to Ketchmark’s wonderful audio world.