In review: MARRIED MAN – ‘HARD BARGAIN’ (LESSTALK, 2019)

Words: Doug Wallen
Band image: Spike Vincent

After a low-key 7” single in 2017 followed by a year packed with gigging, Sydney trio Married Man make its full-length debut with a scathing yet pop-driven album celebrating the stubborn enduring of life’s rough patches.

Sarafina Pea opens the first Married Man album with jolting immediacy, rattling off a string of forceful lyrics that starts with “Can’t make me fall any harder/Can’t make you fall any faster.” Before we’ve had time to fully process that sudden introduction, the Sydney singer/guitarist is already moving on to other staccato ambushes like “You drive a hard fucking bargain” and “I suspect there’ll be some drama.”

That last phrase could double as a downplayed warning for the entire album: expect some drama, indeed. In just under a half hour, Pea and band complete a harrowing emotional journey spanning punky brusqueness (‘In This Room’) and brooding balladry (‘Power Couple’), all delivered with a serrated melodicism that bridges ’90s indie rock and older post-punk. Pea excels at pairing distorted, raking guitar hooks with resonating, relatable mantras, and even when slowing right down for the piano-led meditation on closeness and distance that is ‘Knowhere’, she knocks us out with the sheer universality of tender promises like “You know where to find me/If you ever want to find me.”

That intensely personal vibe makes sense, since Married Man began as Pea’s solo project. It became a three-piece thanks to bassist Kim Sukit (Photogenic) and drummer Marnie Vaughn (No DOZ), and then Straight Arrows’ Owen Penglis recorded Hard Bargain live to tape, ensuring impactful spontaneity. That’s true even of the muddy, low-slung dirge ‘May As Well’ and the more downbeat pair ‘Meet Me at Penn Station’ and ‘Clear as Hell’, which appeared together on a 7” single two years earlier.

As comparisons go, Married Man bears out a clear antecedent in Cat Power’s aching 2003 album You Are Free, which similarly balances modest piano and scratchy guitar against strategically layered vocals. But Hard Bargain very much carves out its own space, whether in the harmonies capping ‘Someone’s Got Your Number’ or the eerie, almost childlike group vocals of the closing ‘A Lot’.

In those moments, Married Man seems to visibly grow from one woman’s personal outlet to a three-person collaborative effort that only bolsters the impassioned payoff. Hard Bargain is the sound of a clear-eyed vision being hammered home with the close-knit, intuitive help of some trusted mates.

If you’re inclined to hear Married Man perform live, you can catch them at the following dates:

April 4 at  Waywards, Sydney w/ The Stroppies, Display Homes, Loose Fit

April 27 (solo) at Brisbane Hotel, Hobart, w/ Slag Queens, Violet & Le Sauvage,  Dolphin

BANDCAMP