“Oh it’s funny / How hard I work / At my leisure”, sings Carolyn Mark on the title track to her sophomore release Terrible Hostess. While the title is a misnomer (at least as far as this album is concerned), those words are dead-on. Mark serves up ten country-infused tracks, which range from rousing to smoldering, and are both more polished and looser than those on her debut, Party Girl. Recorded once again with her infamous “Room-mates”, Tolan McNeil (guitar/bass/vocals) and Garth Johnson (drums/vocals). The record is a diary of the loneliness and frustration of the life of the working musician, tempered with the joys that life can bring, from travelling and surrounding oneself with friends. And more than a few drinks along the way.
Terrible Hostess opens with “Fuzzy Slippers”, a song almost optimistic in it’s cynicism. Many of the songs on the record reference the musician’s life, and here Mark realizes the Catch-22 that no amount of hard work will get you where you want to be without luck, and no amount of luck will make up for not working hard. Though she complains that “The money never goes to those who’ve earned it / And fame eludes the ones who deserve it / A lucky streak’s end is always near”, Mark also takes comfort in “The way hard work / Improves the taste of ice cold beer”. Alcohol is a running theme throughout the album as well, used both to celebrate and drown sorrows. On “Dirty Little Secret”, the most pop of all the songs here, the singer admits “Hope’s expired / Eager got tired and / Ready got tired of waiting / And half-aspirations / And a deep love of wine / Keep me down in the dark / Where the foot-lights don’t shine”. It really doesn’t get any more laid bare than this, though it feels more like acceptance than resignation. But it isn’t just her career and her own self-defeat that get this girl down; there are men also.
On “Port Moody”, Mark recalls the restlessness of nights alone on the road, particularly the nights off. “You wouldn’t believe how I miss you / As we go around to the towns / Last night I dreamed that I kissed you / Woke up but you weren’t around”. She takes a contradictory tone in “Inevitable”, where “It’s just that after last night / I thought I’d take a break / From being president of your fan club”. But it is an imagined relationship she sings about in “Gopherville”, the record’s finest vocal performance, and even in her dream of perfection she can’t let herself off the hook. Over three verses she relates her dream of leaving it all behind for this man, detailing their life together until old age. But she lets reality slip in between each verse, knowing it could never be. Mark cannot let herself be happy, even in fantasy.
Almost an entire review, and no reference to Neko Case. Well, the link between them makes it inevitable to bring up Carolyn Mark’s other half in her side project, the Corn Sisters. There is the obvious similarity of the two women’s voices, from their measured control to the smoky, classic sound they each share. It wouldn’t be a stretch to make comparisons to Patsy Cline. But the main similarity comes from their approach to this music. Their respect and love of traditional, rootsy country music is obvious, as is the way they eschew what passes for country music these days. Mark uses her voice (and the vocal harmonies of her Room-mates) to fantastic, evocative effect, both desperate and joyous. She may well be writing in character (this is the woman who had the urge to put together a tribute album to the highly improvised film Nashville last year), but you can’t help but feel she believes every word she sings. There is such warmth and affirmation in the most despairing of songs, as contradictory as Mark herself.