Surely every review written about Carolyn Mark makes reference to Neko Case, like it’s an unwritten or peer-pressured rule to always name-check both singers in the same breath (note that articles on Case rarely mention Mark). Whether it’s a necessary evil, or a lazy set-up device, it’s unfortunate that it continues to be this way—good grief, look at me perpetuating the very partiality I’ve confessed to abhorring. You see, both Mark and Case are kindred spirits: sometimes duet partners as the Corn Sisters, sometimes touring pals, and mastheads of the Pacific Northwest alt-country scene. While Case has progressed into a realm of semi-notoriety on an international scale as a member of the New Pornographers and queen of country noir (so much so that she was even asked to pose for Playboy, subsequently turning it down), Mark has stuck close to her roots, specifically the “country” in “alt-country”, known to a significantly smaller crowd.
What a shame. Mark has proved herself to be a sharp-tongued, tough, funny songwriter, able to stand comfortably on her own wiseacre merits. She’s released strong albums on the Mint Records label every two years: 2000’s Party Girl, 2002’s Terrible Hostess, and the new The Pros and Cons of Collaboration, which finds her revising her backing band’s name from the Room-Mates to the New Best Friends. She spins yarns like an old pro, jostles and joshes with deadpan sincerity, all with a candid, homey voice that’s equal parts Natalie Merchant, Janis Joplin, and Loretta Lynn. If you’ve spent your time at the bar of anti-Nashville country-western hunting down the little cup of peanuts and haven’t yet noticed Mark tossing off side-splitting jokes while awaiting the next round, now’s the time to perk up.
The Pros and Cons of Collaboration whisks by like a saloon cabaret: think the women of The Triplets of Belleville snapping their fingers in the valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountain range. Mark’s New Best Friends are a plentiful bunch of virtuosos, including frequent collaborator/producer Tolan McNeil, who turns in a number of blistering Django-fied guitar runs. Mark’s songs are three parts alcohol and two parts bon mot, a traditional style that owes multitudes to Nashville’s past and seems to flaunt a middle finger towards the contemporary incarnations of Music Row.
As a songwriter, Mark is most effective when she reads a tipsy riot act; you can almost see her eyes rolling with a no-nonsense, endearingly cynical attitude. “I know how much it kills you / When I tell you what to do,” Mark matter-of-factly smirks in “2 Days Smug and Sober (Bourbon Decay)”, “But read my lips you fucker / Chew that gum again, we’re through”. The delivery is confident and sincere, the words wickedly delightful. Drummer Gregory MacDonald pounds a Gene Krupa beat on the skins, emphasizing the song’s barrelhouse piano track and McNeil’s insane fret acrobatics. In “The Wine Song”, which could in fact be Mark’s romantic manifesto, she wonders, “How can you love a man who drinks white wine?” While the band hustles through an acoustic bluegrass blitz, Mark confides, “I keep him in the cellar hoping he’ll improve with age” and brutally calls ‘em like she sees ‘em: “While we’re on the topic if I may digress a bit / Don’t torture me with funky homemade U-brew discount shit.” “Vincent Gallo” is a grinning ditty of obsession with the titular actor/director, smothered in CSN&Y harmonies and a nod to Ms. Case (“He was hanging out with me and Neko / And then Neko had to go—thank God!”).
Elsewhere, Mark exhibits a gift for verbose Desire-era Dylan song-stories; whether she’s “the guest in a sublet love nest” (“Chantal and Leroy”) or a participant in a Thanksgiving dinner set to a backdrop of bloated, commercial patriotism (“Yanksgiving”), Mark is a captivating, jocular teller of tales. When the road story is rendered sober, as it is in the dreamy waltz “Jody and Sue”, Mark can effectively paint states of mind, devoid of her typical irony: “We are still and yet still we are moving”. Likewise, covers of obscure songs by the Movie Stars (“Bigger Bed”) and Jr. Gone Wild (“Slept All Afternoon”) naturally fit the album’s swift progression, never feeling like they’re born from another’s pen.
From its tongue-in-cheek opening overture (which seems to spoof everything from Aaron Copland to Tommy) to the even thicker tongue-in-cheek “Outro/Credits” (complete with narration by a man who doesn’t sound unlike Seinfeld‘s J. Peterman: “It’s been said that behind every great woman you’ll find six to ten men working their nuts off”), The Pros and Cons of Collaboration is simply a delight. Mark and her New Best Friends intuitively ooze the spirit of Golden Era country and western, before commercial sap panderers drained it of character and wit. These are the stories you wait up all night to hear, anticipating a phone call from a friend on the road or a roommate’s return from the trenches of barroom warfare. “You won’t believe this,” they’ll say, and you’ll smile, knowing that you’re in for a treat.