Carolyn Mark is always singing about some deadbeat. Some absent-minded committer of cardinal sins. Postcard neglecter. Eye blinker. Gum snapper. Her exhaustion tells you she’s been there before, that the maitre d’ probably knows her by name; her acidic sense of humor tells you she’s learned how to deal with it. Albums like The Pros and Cons of Collaboration and Terrible Hostess served up comically aggravated, old school country and western evocations with just the right amount of dark humor and hard-boiled emotion.
She also makes records with a honky tonk house party atmosphere and a swinging sense of alliance, christening her bands with names like the Room-Mates or the New Best Friends. So it’s not surprising that she’d further embrace the spirit of camaraderie and record an album of duets with 14 friends. Just Married: An Album of Duets is Mark’s argument for the pros of collaboration, trading verses, accenting lines, and meeting in the choruses with a group of singers that possesses her regular charm. It’s also an excuse to get Mark’s voice back in the occasional role of harmonizer and supporter, harkening back to her symbiotic role as one of the Corn Sisters (with Neko Case, whose recent live album The Tigers Have Spoken featuring Mark on harmonies). Mark remains center stage, but on this, her fourth studio album, she’s inclined to cohabitate the limelight.
Mark and her crew of fellow Canadian roots underdogs have fun with the elastic possibilities of the duet form. Just Married‘s songs (some written by Mark or her guests, some covers) are reflections on musical history and the familiar templates assumed by the shared vocal — the venerable Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn blueprint (“Fireworks” with NQ Arbuckle), the Otis Redding and Carla Thomas allusion (the tongue-in-cheek lovers’ quarrel “Done Something Wrong” with Ford Pier), the novelty tunes allure (Pee Wee King’s “Slow Poke” with Nathan Tinkham), and the all-inclusive reunion jamboree à la the Band (“North Country Fair” with the Silver Hearts). The eclectic reach of the songs is like a series of connected soundstages; Mark nimbly springs from one to the next, from honky tonk to rural folk, from rickety waltzes to sweaty soul workouts. She sounds more prepared for some of the assumed roles than others and, admittedly, that’s an irrelevant observation for those who enjoy the album’s easy charms. The participants all sound like they’re just trying to have a good time playing some songs. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you’re prepared to allow the “good time” atmosphere some room for its positive and negative implications.
Just Married is the loosest, most down-homey record Mark has made. Most of its songs are no more ambitious or demanding than a laid-back basement session between friends. While the easy-going vibe can be endearing, it can also be distracting and disadvantageous. “Rocket Piano Man”, which sorta combines and contorts Bowie’s “Space Oddity” with, among other things, Elton John’s “Rocket Man”, is really nothing more than a throwaway spoof tune. Even its best line — “Ground control to Elton John / Hope you’ve got your platforms on” — is the kind of private guffaw that’s probably best left as an in-joke between friends. The ’50s balladry of “The Happy Bluebird Sings”, with the Fine Options, is so casual that it’s taxingly bland (ditto on the near-narcoleptic rendition of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” with Luke Doucet). Perhaps “Claxton’s Lament”, with multi-instrumentalist Carey Mercer, is the best example of how Just Married‘s anything-goes attitude can turn into carelessness and indulgence. Mercer’s voice, a wound-up piece of whispered melodrama, pushes Mark’s liberal embrace of humor past the implied limit and becomes, quite unintentionally, an awkward moment. Mark herself comes across as unsure of how to handle the moment, her voice hesitant and disoriented, oblivious to the world save Mercer’s near-comic self-fanaticism.
When a recording’s success is dependent on the strength of multiple collaborations, such discrepancies are simply occupational hazards. As Mark hands over a portion of the reins to others, she also surrenders some of the security she carries as a front woman. Just Married isn’t a terrible effort, but it’s not terribly great; while Mark strikes it rich from time to time (“It’s All Just a Matter of (Where You Draw the Line)” with Geoff Berner, “The Colour of Love” with Dave Lang, the aforementioned “Done Something Wrong”), the booty isn’t plentiful. If Mark has to really cut fast and loose just to gauge exactly what are the cons of collaboration, that’s a minor digression for us to endure.