In 2007 the blues singer Bettye LaVette teamed up with the Drive By Truckers to release the stellar Scene of the Crime. Two years later ex-Trucker Jason Isbell teamed up with the 400 Unit to release a spectacular eponymous album. And now, at the end of 2009, alternative country songbird Carolyn Mark finds herself teaming up with NQ Arbuckle and singing a song that contains the line “It’s hard being a good man listening to the Drive By Truckers” from an album that does the seemingly difficult task of landing on par with the previous two mentioned releases.
The selling point of the album—the selling point of any Carolyn Mark album, actually—is her remarkable voice. She’s a passionate vocalist with a tone that at times recalls latter day Emmylou Harris (the way she opens up “2nd Time” recalls the Red Dirt Girl’s recent output), a great sense of phrasing, an impressive range, and the ability to turn an emotion at the flip of a dime. That Mark remains in fine, fine vocal form isn’t a surprise to any of those who have been listening to her or her collaboration with Neko Case over the years.
Neville Quinland, the lead singer of NQ Arbuckle, does himself a service by staying out of Mark’s way when she goes into full-on throat throttle. That’s not to cut his talent: he’s a strong enough vocalist with a ragged set of pipes that may not be completely distinctive, but can tell a story with enough candid emotion. However, when surrounded by Mark and Corb Lund (who delivers a heartbreaking guest vocal on “Saskatoon Tonight”), Quinland’s vocal shortcomings become obvious. Luckily, for the most of the album, he’s able to complement Mark and her fearless deliveries.
While Mark’s vocals give the album most of its luster, the best songs bear the name of NQ Arbuckle. Not that Mark hasn’t written a fine batch of songs. In fact, she’s at the top of her game for most of the songs. “2nd Time” is a well-detailed narrative, “Itchy Feet” (which has Corb Lund supplying a wonderful mandolin part) contains countless simple images that reveal to be treasures, and the title track is devastatingly beautiful.
Good as Mark’s tunes are, NQ Arbuckle are providing the best material. Each of their songs contains at least one standout line that manages to add to the overall theme of each individual track, as opposed to drawing too much attention to themselves. “Saskatoon Tonight” destroys with the simple truth of “If you’re lucky some Canadian farm girl will drag you back to her place”, whereas “When I Come Back” doesn’t use verbose language to make the point: “Please don’t wish me to change but don’t let me stay the same”.
What brings Mark’s and Quindland’s vocals and songs together is the first-rate musicianship of the musicians in NQ Arbuckle: “Sunday Morning” is driven home by a mournful pedal steel, “When I Come Back” is given a wallop from the combination of honky-tonk guitar, shuffling drum, and insidious banjo work, “Canada Day Off/Toronto” builds into a rambunctious rocker number, and the title track manages to build its sentiment without becoming saccharine. There’s not a sonic mistake on the album, and that’s because of the fine musicianship and focus of NQ Arbuckle.
Like Bettye and Jason, Carolyn has found a way to incorporate a band’s sound into her own and make it not only work to her advantage, but also add to the evolution of her own sound. Hopefully this collaboration will be more than just a one-shot deal, for Mark and NQ Arbuckle really bring home the goods.