Album of the Week, November 10: Kate and Anna McGarrigle

K&AMcGThe McGarrigle sisters were born in the mid-40s in Montreal and grew up in a musical family. Much recreational time was spent around the piano in the parlor singing standards and folk songs in both English and French. Kate and Anna both got guitars as gifts in grade school and followed a musical path into adulthood. They both wrote songs, sometimes together, and performed as a duo singing originals as well as the songs of their youth. They formed the Mountain City Four in 1963 and kept it going until 1967. After the group dissolved, they continued to write and do session work. The big break came when Linda Ronstadt used Anna’s Heart Like A Wheel as the title track to her fifth album. Other artists began picking up McGarrigle songs, including Maria Muldaur, who recorded Cool River for her second album. Producer Joe Boyd invited Kate to play piano on the track, not realizing that Anna had written the song. Discovering his mistake, he invited her to LA as well and after he finished Muldaur’s album, he produced the sisters’ stunning eponymous debut.

Title Kate & Anna McGarrigle
Act Kate & Anna McGarrigle
Label Warner Bros. Release Date 1975
Producer Joe Boyd and Greg Prestopino
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Kiss and Say Goodbye
  2. My Town
  3. Blues In D
  4. Heart Like A Wheel
  5. Foolish You
  6. Talk to Me of Mendocino
  7. Complainte pour Ste Catherine
  8. Tell My Sister
  9. Swimming Song
  10. Jigsaw Puzzle of Life
  11. Go Leave
  12. Travellin’ On For Jesus

The album includes five Kate songs, four by Anna (including a collaboration with Philippe Tatartcheff), a traditional tune, and two covers — a nice mix that reflected their interests and paved the way for their musical future. Things start off strong with Kiss and Say Goodbye, a wonderful song of mature lust and a testament to the power of a relationship built on recurring one-night stands. It’s charming, unflinching, earthy, and joyful.

My Town is a lament for the loss of the familiar in the wake of betrayal. Quiet but stirring, it serves as a nice counterpoint to Kiss and shows off the sisters’ diverse musical strengths. Blues In D is a haunting song about their late father, Frank. Heart Like A Wheel, the song that started it all, is justifiably one of their most famous. Anna’s tale of heartbreak is beautifully crafted and while many others have treated it with love and respect, the interwoven vocals of the McGarrigle sisters (including older sibling Jane) are filled with unparalleled emotion.

The first cover is Wade Hemsworth’s Foolish You. It’s a wonderful song by the Canadian songsmith that dates back to the work of the Mountain City Four. Part reel, part honky-tonk, the tune is as jaunty as the lyrics are resigned. The great singalong chorus features a wide variety of friends and family, another harbinger of future performances. Talk To Me of Mendocino is a semi-autobiographical tale from Kate, a beautifully constructed song of geography. In witty, sad lyrics it shows how much one’s troubles can follow even the most determined escape.

Kate and Anna would often sing in French (including one full album); the lone Francophone track here is the delicious Complainte pour Ste Catherine. This boisterous lament refers both to the patron saint of single women and a major shopping district in Montreal. The narrator is a hardened woman — perhaps a prostitute — who inveighs against the hypocrisy of the smart set who come around to shop and be seen.

Tell My Sister is the first in a long line of family-referencing titles and songs in the sisters’ repertoire. Like Mendocino, its something of a travelogue of sorrow, a spare, plaintive tune of longing.  The next track is another cover, this time a song by Kate’s husband at the time, Loudon Wainwright III. Swimming Song is a fun singalong about recreation, capturing the joys of summer and reveling in casual physicality. Jigsaw Puzzle of Life is a nice tribute to a fading friendship, filled with memories and light on regret.

Go Leave is perhaps the starkest of the personal songs. Kate’s narrative breaks from typical lyrical forms as she contemplates the crushing end of an affair. The quiet delivery of her anger is more potent than most bellows of rage. This is another true standout. The album ends with the charming Travellin’ On For Jesus, a family favorite from around the piano. It rounds out the disc nicely on an upbeat note, leaving the listener wanting more.

FURTHER LISTENING: The sisters were never particularly prolific, releasing only ten albums between 1975 and Kate’s untimely death (from sarcoma) in 2010. Each has something lovely to offer, though none quite capture the magic of the debut. Heartbeats Accelerating, their 1990 return after an eight-year absence, is the strongest single album, although the reliance on synthesized sounds is off-putting to some fans. The most enjoyable listening experience is 1998’s The McGarrigle Hour. Over the course of 21 songs, the whole McGarrigle family presents songs new and old from their history together. It features a rare reunion with Loudon Wainwright III, great contributions from his and Kate’s children Rufus and Martha — both just beginning their careers at the time — and many friends including Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Chaim Tannenbaum.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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