Sister Oh Sister

Released in 1976 and 1977, with themarginal movements of punk and disco revolutionizing popular music, Kate andAnna McGarrigle’s Kate & AnnaMcGarrigle and Dancer With Bruised Knees are cult records. TheMcGarrigles were folkies who will never become iconic the way the Ramones and Saturday Night Fever soon did. Butneither were they obscure: when Kate died of cancer early last year, thetributes flooded in like she was Marlene Dietrich. It helped that Kate’s sonwith Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright, is more renowned than either ofhis parents. It also helped that the McGarrigles hailed from Canada, whichpromotes its artists like the national assets they are. But the main reason isthe two albums themselves. Cult records they are. Classics they also are.

Though the McGarrigles ended up recording less musicthan I’d hoped in 1976, there’s enough, and most of it will endure. But thefirst two albums are indelible—since 1980, I’ve revisited them more often thanany of my punk-era faves except maybe Rocketto Russia. In part it’s the material,in part something subtler, as came clear when I somewhat apprehensivelytest-played the bonus disc of Tell MySister, Nonesuch’s handsome,economical reissue of the two classics. Only Dylanologists and smitten fanboysneed the detritus that fills most bonus discs. But that wasn’t how this onefelt even though half of its 21 songs were also available on the twoaccompanying albums—in what must be, given how I’ve been raving, definitiveinterpretations. I appreciated the previously unheard material, especially alost masterpiece about the almost carefree pleasures of a hippie summer called”Saratoga Summer Song.” But mostly the bonus disc succeeds for thesame reasons I’m always introjecting these records into my musicallyoversaturated home life.

I’ve called the McGarrigles folkies, a mildly belittlingcharacterization that seems fairer than ever now that I’ve read the Dane Lankencoffee-table book Kate and AnnaMcGarrigle: Songs and Stories, which I liked so much that my wife bought me one formy birthday. But as is invariably pointed out, Kate and Anna were domesticfolkies. They made piano-and-accordion music not guitar music, parlor music notcampfire music, stay-at-home music not on-the-road music; rather than pretty orgorgeous or powerful, their voices were just beautiful, in a proudly plain way.Products of a  household whereeverybody sang, they meshed perfectly with the give-and-take sociability ofchopping vegetables and reading in bed.

Produced by the astute folk-rock impresario Joe Boyd,the McGarrigles’ classic albums built a bridge between Canada and California,where folk music had been profitably homogenized by the likes of Jackson Browneand Linda Ronstadt, who named her 1974 breakthrough album after Anna’s”Heart Like a Wheel.” From the the debut’s opening track, Kate’s”Kiss and Say Goodbye,” Boyd goes for a more casual feel than PeterAsher could have countenanced for Ronstadt—Steve Gadd pokey, Bobby Keyslaid-back. Nevertheless, parlors seldom come equipped with trap sets andsaxophone honchos, and when a full band and Anna’s harmonies rev up aroundKate’s ebullient “And I don’t know where it’s coming from/But I want tokiss you till my mouth gets numb,” we who love this record recognize a representation of the casual—and theecstatic. The bonus-disc demo is very different—solo with clunkier piano, onlythen toward the climax Anna’s harmonies sidle in, and soon a guitar is quietlykibitzing. The song is so good, as I know because Boyd softened me up, thatright now I prefer the bare-bones conversation of this truly living-roomversion (which was recorded in a studio).

I understand why most McGarrigles fans swear by thedebut, which listens easy without ever going soft or making room for a merelygood song. Topping even Anna’s “My Town” and “Heart Like aWheel” and her own “(Talk to Me of) Mendocino” and “Tell MySister,” Kate’s Loudon farewell “Go Leave,” taken solo with guitar, is regarded by somesachems of sorrow as the most bereft breakup song ever recorded; although it’sperfectly written—the disarming six-word opening, the enjambed “aching”-“breaking,”the intrusion of the blunt “stalling” three lines from the end—quotingeven a couplet would do a disservice to its power as music. Nevertheless, myown beloved has always been Dancer WithBruised Knees, where the McGarrigles perfected their aesthetic. Although afew of the debut’s Stateside session heavies reappear, most of the music comesfrom the evolving crew of Montreal folkies the sisters started hanging with asteenagers. These include Dawson College philosophy prof Chaim Tannenbaum onharmonica, mandolin, recorder, and backing vocals as well as trumpeter-vocalistDane Lanken, a journalist already encountered above as an author and thought ofby many as Mr. Anna McGarrigle.

What I love so hard about thislovely, homely album is that it doesn’t listen so easy. It risks an austeritythat rings as true in eat-the-poor 2011 as it did in high-punk 1977. Itsmelodies run deeper, its beats are less swinging even with jazzmen on fivetracks, and it risks the cognitive dissonance of three songs in French thatwon’t sound so quaint to Anglophones who work out the translations. Admittedly,I’m a fool for Kate’s “Walking Song,” about taking a stroll with yourlife’s companion, which my wife and I have been putting on each other’s mixtapessince I turned 40, and for “First Born,” about a privileged kind ofson who could be Rufus, Loudon, or even me. But my thematic preferences don’tstop me from admiring how the album ends with two songs about circling back tozero without your life’s companion, one by Anna called “Kitty ComeHome” and one by Kitty herself.

Kate was the motivator, declares Anna, born 14 monthsearlier on December 4, 1944. Kate taught herself banjo and blues; Kate set outfor New York with a singing partner who ended up producing Laurie Anderson;Kate made away with Loudon Wainwright’s fickle heart; Kate urged her big sisterto write songs because she needed the material. Without Kate, Anna swears,she’s retiring. And though I hope she keeps writing, there’s common sense tothis pledge, not because Kate’s somewhat fuller voice and bigger songs renderedher musically dominant, as to some slight extent they did, but because if Annahad died first, Kate would have been hard-pressed to go on alone as well.

Their signature trick, after all, was that singularsynthesis of timbre and intonation, nature and nurture, that has raised up theharmony of so many siblings. But harmonizing families aren’t all alike—consanguinitydidn’t help the Osmonds much. The McGarrigles were blessed in addition by theirlong immersion in the Celtic mysteries of French-Canadian song and thecontrarian intelligence of their eccentric close harmonies. This intelligencealso inflected the physical cast of their voices. They’re female, and Anna’svoice especially has a courageous fragility about it, so their male admirerscan’t resist calling them sweet. But to me they always seemed tart, sharp, wry,nearly prim. They seemed sexier that way, too.

Which brings us, by the back door, to the even biggerreason the sisters needed each other artistically: to complete their domesticarrangement, which combined two radically different households and spanned fourgenerations. Lanken outlines a childhood in which both grandfathers weremusic-mad, one as an impresario-performer and the other as a fan. Musicales attheir childhood home in the modest ski town of Saint-Sauveur featured StephenFoster, pre-WWI chestnuts from a songbook Kate committed to memory, 13 seniorFrancophone siblings with their own specialty numbers, and not two but threesinging McGarrigle sisters—the eldest, Jane, produced the duo’s fifth album andhas joined in occasionally onstage. But then Kate and Anna’s parents took anapartment in Montreal, and soon the two sisters had joined a shifting folkieménage. Locally renowned as the Mountain City Four even though there weresometimes eight of them, this collective went worldwide on Dancer With Bruised Knees.

The McGarrigles were younger than most of their cohort,and female in the pre-feminist bohemia of 1962, when women weren’t supposed toknow blues like Kate or even paint in a garret like Anna. Yet long before theirfame they were anything but marginal in their little community, which migratedfrom living room to living room, including one in Saint-Sauveur. Most of this Iknow from Lanken, who narrates via text and caption until Kate and Anna startgetting serious press in 1976, at which point Songs and Stories turns into a generous clip file augmented by manymore captions (the snapshots are exquisite throughout). But left out of thisscrapbook is a piece I love from Ms.magazine. Poetically, it was written by my own sister, Georgia Christgau, andit examines ideas of family—as do the transcriptions of unpublished interviewswith the sisters and their mother that Georgia miraculously dug out of herfiles when I solicited her recollections.

Interviewed separately, Kate and Anna each applied theword “incestuous” to their crew, and they weren’t just beingmetaphorical; Kate told Georgia that Dane was the only man at a recentget-together that she’d never made love with—and that love was invariablyinvolved. Anyone who thought “I want to kiss you till my mouth getsnumb” was not imagery one ordinarily associates with parlor music shouldunderstand that this was no ordinary parlor. I believe Kate about the lovepart—by then she’d known these people 15 years, time to love quite a few fellowspirits if you’re young enough. In her account, those affairs were in the past,and far from generating the resentments and rivalries you might suspect, theyinstead guaranteed her an extra portion of the “love and concern”Anna promised in “Kitty Come Home.” Georgia, who found herselfpouring out her life story the day she hit Montreal, concluded that “intimacyis all Kate and Anna are really comfortable with.”

The McGarrigles were at home inan exceptionally complex domestic arrangement that melded a traditionalextended family of amateur musicians with a floating post-’60s collective ofsemi-professional ones. Either formation had the makings of a minefield riddledwith repression or one-upmanship. But the McGarrigles’ formations avoided suchperils. They allowed you to feel what you felt and tolerated your mistakes whenyou were proving what you had to prove. It was a perfect environment forintimacy, meaning not just candor but all the improvements on the low-concept”heartfelt” and “natural” that surface in the appreciationsLanken has assembled: “civilizing,” “strangely unsentimental,””translucently undramatic,” “unselfconsciously reflective,””poignant and playful,” “temperate, forthright andcheerful.”

What none of this richly deserved praise suggests—thoughit’s hardly a secret: the title song of the album Jane produced, Love Over and Over, makes a point of it—is thatneither Anna with her long, private marriage nor Kate with her foreshortened,defining one has ever written a love song. I don’t mean a heartbreak song—Kate & Anna McGarrigle is amongother things a heartbreak album. Nor do I mean a sex song—Kate’s begin with”Kiss and Say Goodbye,” in which the goodbye has the last word, andculminate with “Talk About It,” a 50-year-old’s invitation to bedthat promises, “We can talk about it in the morning/It’ll come/It alwaysdoes.” There are even mother love songs, crowned by Kate’s translucent”Babies if I Didn’t Have You.” Appreciations of their life’scompanion, no. Appreciations of their month’s companion, ditto.

Although some of the McGarrigles’ morebenighted admirers consider this a virtue, it’s clearly a failing, one as conduciveto cult status as their acuity and reserve. But given their strangeunsentimentality, it’s a forgivable failing, because as anybody knows, it’seasier to write a credible heartbreak song than a credible heart song. Anyway,there’s a major exception, one so unsentimental you can forget it’s there: theaforementioned “Walking Song.” It’s wistful, imagined—Kate’s visionof a Loudon, let’s just say, ready to spend days hiking and talking, hopefullyin Canada but Mexico would do. “Be my lover or be my friend,” sheproposes, or implores. This was an early song, and the available evidencesuggests she never got her wish. So together with her sister she completed acircle of love that served as a substitute. And together with her sister shegave it to us. That’s love too. In a way, all the McGarrigles’ songs are lovesongs.