Let's Just Stay Here
Carolyn Mark and NQ Arbuckle
Mint Records 2009
I love music. It took years to realize just exactly how much. When a mind-blowing or brilliant album, song or artist comes along, it's like Ecstasy or amazing sex with someone you really care about, a lot. But before we find the legendary and the brilliant, there are the bad, the fair, the good, and the memorable, the stuff we keep coming back to, discovering subtleties during repeated listens, the stuff that cult followings are made of. I can think of several of my favorite artists that fall into this category, and I am devoted to them as much as I am to the ones that should be legendary and each of you all have some of your own.
Carolyn Mark should probably be declared a Canadian National Treasure. She has slowly developed into one of those cult musical figures that captures a small but fiercely devoted audience of which I am a member. I have seen her at least twice at SXSW during one of the free Mint Records day shows. Her voice isn't operatic, but it is beautiful in its own way, and it is sweetly memorable.
Her latest, and by now she may have recorded something even newer, is another duet album with NQ Arbuckle (There are at least two that I recall with Mark and Arbuckle). She seems to like these duet projects, and she creates them with art, heart, and finesse.
The album is generously peppered with originals by Mark and by Arbuckle, with the occasional cover. Mark leads on her own compositions as does Arbuckle on his, but they always meet in the middle for the harmonies. I am partial to Mark's voice but Arbuckle's has its own gruff charm that I am growing to love, and their harmonies are unique and endearing.
The album opens with All Time Low, which, while being lyrically eerie, featuring a trip through Death Valley to Reno on the Day Of The Dead, it also features one of my favorite spine-chilling musical instruments, a musical saw, and it is featured prominently with the requisite twangy guitar. As with all of Mark's albums, the lyrics are carefully written and selected for maximum impact in the most subtle of ways. You have to listen a few times and so, as you grow to appreciate the lyrics, you grow to appreciate her voice.
Saskatoon Tonight, the fourth track, is mostly Arbuckle, with guest vocals provided by Corb(y) Lund and the minor harmonies of Mark. It's a haunting song, and may be a haunting album if you let it get under your skin. It features a piano and a minimal drum kit and so would probably be at home with some middle of nowhere country lounge singer. It feels like a barroom confessional, and it's done more right than anything that Nashville can produce at the moment. It's subtle.
The most interesting little piece of trivia I have noticed about Mint Records releases, since many of these albums garner US distribution with US labels, is that every once in a while songs and lyrics that are unique to Canada, rather than a generic United States, float to the surface. This album has two such songs, and that gives it a unique perspective on music up North, but it also opens a door onto the mind of the artist who creates art written for a specific audience.
There are many standouts on this album, and you'll just have to listen to it and find out, but there is one more that I must draw your attention to, Canada Day Off/Toronto. I worked for a few sales companies in Austin, TX and frequently called Canada and just as frequently discovered that there are more national holidays, and even more regional holidays than we have in the United States. What happens on those holidays is invariably what happens on ours. We join friends and family and invariably get drunk to blow off steam, which is what this song seems to be doing as well. It's a tight, fast little number, and it makes me wonder why we don't have more holidays. It would certainly relieve a hell of a lot of tension.
I haven't even mentioned the cover artwork illustrations, which on a few of her last albums have been quaint and disturbing in a Ambrose Bierce kind of way. Kelly Haigh may or may not be familiar to previous Carolyn Mark albums, but I always seem to be drawn to the intriguing, and so I am never disappointed.
As you remember this album, fondly grasping it from your ipod or your shelf five years from now, remember why this music has such a hold on me. The word that best describes Carolyn Mark is heart. That counts for everything, and if we let her, I believe she can even make us cry.