Lynn Jackson,
Restless Days
(Busted Flat, 2007)

Carolyn Mark,
Nothing is Free
(Mint, 2007)

If Carolyn Mark were an American, as opposed to a lifelong resident of British Columbia, her music would be classified among the acoustic end of Americana. Neither folk nor pop nor rock, though those genres and others are among the influences, Nothing is Free comes across -- very broadly -- as something like mainstream contemporary country, except with really stripped-down arrangements and lyrics a whole lot more intelligent (and a whole lot less pious) than any you'll hear coming out of commercial Nashville.

As a general rule (with the inevitable exceptions, of course), my own listening preferences do not run to singer-songwriters. But Mark is better than most, an assured, mature, plain-spoken vocalist who composes melodies that sort of sneak up on you as you're focused on the lyrics, which definitely grab your attention. They're infused with wit, black humor and dryly feminist sensibility, as in the opening lines of the sardonic "The 1 That Got Away (With It)" -- "There's two kinds of women you let in your life / Exciting new mistress and boring old wife." Sung from the former's point of view, the song pours forth a literary short-story's worth of emotional tangle.

On Restless Days fellow Canadian Lynn Jackson, from Kitchener, Ontario, owes more to melodic country-rock, soft bluegrass and folk-pop than to the harder-toned, more bluntly charged music of the older Mark, though both offer distinctive approaches that ensure they will not be confused with anybody else.

Unlike Mark, Jackson sings in a high, whispery, romantic voice that seems in danger at any moment of floating off into the ether yet somehow stays anchored and controlled. Thus, even if she easily could, she never feels earnest or precious. She does, however, feel very serious. Next time around, a little humor surely wouldn't hurt. Her songs are infused with darkness, literal and metaphorical, but they are also lit by atmospheric, intensely musical, mostly acoustic, consistently interesting arrangements.

Commercial country music already makes me feel bad. That it doesn't sound like this makes me feel even worse.

review by
Jerome Clark

10 November 2007

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