Song of the Day, April 15: Love Is by the McGarrigle Sisters

McGarrigleHALoveIsEmmylouBluebirdLoveIsToday’s song comes in two lovely versions. Kate and Anna McGarrigle wrote Love Is with their sister, Jane, in the mid-80s. They included it in live shows during a long break from studio work during that decade.It’s a charming song, a lovely bit of wordplay celebrating the ups and downs of that most powerful of emotions.

Longtime friend Emmylou Harris borrowed the song for her 1988 album, Bluebird, recording an energetic, country-pop version. Two years later, Kate and Anna recorded Heartbeats Accelerating, one of their finest albums. A synth-based adult contemporary/folk disc, it includes a more meditative version of the track. Both versions are spectacular, demonstrating how widely varied interpretations can lend strength to a good song.

Enjoy both Emmylou’s take and Kate and Anna’s version today.

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Song of the Day, August 31: What’ll I Do from the McGarrigle Hour

McGWhatllToday’s song is a splendid family rendering of a pop standard. Irving Berlin wrote What’ll I Do in 1923 for inclusion in his Music Box Revue series. It was introduced by singers Grace Moore and John Steel and has been covered by dozens of artists; Nelson Riddle famously adopted it as a theme for his Oscar-winning score for the 1974 film The Great Gatsby.

When Kate and Anna McGarrigle assembled their extended family live shows, the McGarrigle Hour, they selected songs that showed the breadth of their tastes, let each performer shine, and resonated with them personally. Kate had selected What’ll I Do for their mother’s funeral, and the sisters decided to include it in the program. To capture the family spirit, Kate sang it with her ex-husband Loudon Wainwright III and their children Rufus and Martha Wainwright.

Sister Jane McGarrigle describes the situation nicely in her liner notes for the album taken from the show.

This song means a lot to us. Kate came up with it when our mother died in May 1994, and we wanted her funeral music to have a special touch. It was from [her] era and perfectly expressed our grief. … Here, Kate, Loudon and their kids, a foursome who had never sat down to a Christmas turkey together, let alone sing a song, come together as natural as breathing.

The family harmonies are lovely and haunting, giving no hint of the tense history they share. The track is a standout from the show and a fine moment in all four perfomers’ catalogs.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, December 9: Kiss and Say Goodbye by Kate and Anna McGarrigle

KateAnnaKissToday’s song is Kate McGarrigle’s Kiss and Say Goodbye. It appears on the delightful eponymous debut album she and her sister Anna released in 1975. A wonderful musical romp, it’s a lusty grown-up hookup song. The narrator greets a lover who is in town briefly, detailing their plans for a joyous evening on the town. After a night spent in each other’s company, the pair greet the sunrise, then kiss and say goodbye.

Kate is in fine voice, with Anna providing flawless harmonies, and the energy of the song is infectiously joyful without being giddy. Bobby Keys — a veteran sax player who has provided decades of studio and tour work for scores of artists, notably the Rolling Stones — provides a jubilant tenor sax solo that bridges the lyrics between the movies and the morning.

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, August 1: Goin’ Back to Harlan

McGarrigleKateAnneMatapediaToday’s song is Goin’ Back to Harlan. Anna McGarrigle wrote it for her seventh album with sister Kate, the rootsy Matapédia. It’s a potent song of nostalgia and longing, with the singer reflecting on childhood innocence and yearning for a return to simpler days. McGarrigle name-checks a wide array of traditional folk songs throughout the lyrics, adding an extra layer of charm and poignancy. After a couple of albums with significant synthesizer content, this disc was a return to their musical roots, and the simple arrangement and instrumentation helps make the song especially compelling.

EmmylouHarlanPart of the magic of the McGarrigle sisters is that their deeply personal music is so universal that many musicians have covered their songs. This track is no exception. Family friend Emmylou Harris chose it for inclusion on her stunning 1995 album Wrecking Ball. While faithful to the original, she makes it truly her own, turning in a high, clear vocal that is one of her finest moments.

Enjoy this beautiful song in two live versions today, first by Kate and Anna McGarrigle and then as lovingly interpreted by Emmylou Harris.

Song of the Day, May 12: Go Leave by Kate and Anna McGarrigle

McGoLeaveToday’s song is Go Leave, written and sung by Kate McGarrigle on her stunning eponymous debut album with sister Anna. Over a stark acoustic guitar, she weaves an almost stream-of-consciousness lyric of bitterness and betrayal. It’s a moving and powerful performance featuring one of her finest vocals. McGarrigle manages to mix anger and sorrow in equal measure, quietly laying out her grievances and broken nostalgia.

Go, leave
Don’t come back
No more am I for the taking
But I can’t say that my heart’s not aching
It’s breaking in two

One of the sisters’ best-known songs, it has been covered many times by a wide variety of artists. After Kate’s untimely death in 2010, her family sponsored a number of concerts to raise money for the cancer research foundation that bears her name. Frequent attendee Antony turned in one of the finest interpretations of the song, featured on a live album also dedicated to the foundation.

Nothing, however, matches the raw power of Kate McGarrigle’s stirring original recording.

Song of the Day, January 2: As Fast As My Feet

McGarrigleFastFeetKamiTeddyLindaTToday’s song is As Fast As My Feet, written by Anna McGarrigle and Chaim Tannenbaum. Although long a favorite of live shows by Kate and Anna McGarrigle, for some reason the sisters never committed it to disc. It’s a boisterous tribute to the travelling life and the joys of arriving safely home. Driven by accordion, banjo, and electric keyboard, it manages the balance that typifies the best of the McGarrigle’s work: roots music — in this case with a somewhat Cajun feel — blended with a very modern sensibility. The lyrics echo that tension, celebrating the modern conveniences that make travel faster and the simple comfort of hearth and home in one magical package.

As fast as my little feet will carry me
As fast as my wings can fly
As fast as automobile can ferry me
As fast as this thing can drive
The sum of rivet and aluminium
Banking in the setting sun
Shining like a silver star
When my work is done

Folk legend Linda Thompson sang the song at a number of concerts to raise funds for the Kate McGarrigle Foundation after Kate’s death from sarcoma in 2010. She enjoyed it so much that she turned it into a family celebration for her latest album, the cheekily named Won’t Be Long Now. Daughter Kami provides lead vocals as Linda and son Teddy sing harmonies and backgrounds. Grandson Zak Hobbs provides a delightful mandolin line and a lead guitar worthy of his grandfather, Linda’s ex-husband Richard.

Enjoy this classic live reading by the McGarrigles and this wonderful family recording by the Thompsons today.

Song of the Day, December 26: The Swimming Song by Loudon Wainwright III

LoudonWainwrightSwimmingSongToday’s song is The Swimming Song by Loudon Wainwright III. It leads off his fourth album, 1973’s Attempted Mustache. The track is classic Wainwright, blending a country-tinged sound with his witty wordplay and sharp observations. A simple set of images about summer fun in the water, the vignettes come together into a joyous whole, with Wainwright capturing a wonderful sense of celebration. The lyrics are so well crafted that the listener can see the sunlight and hear the splashing as the singer enjoys himself. Forty years on, The Swimming Song has become one of Wainwright’s most beloved songs.

This summer I swam in a public place
And a reservoir, to boot,
At the latter I was informal,
At the former I wore my suit, I wore my swimming suit.

The song has been covered many times. The finest renderings include:

  • A stunning cover recorded in 1975 by his then wife, Kate McGarrigle, and her sister, Anna for their debut album.
  • Fairport Convention included a charming version on their acoustic album Old, New, Borrowed, Blue in 1996.
  • When Eddi Reader left Fairground Attraction, she included a simple cover on her first album, Mirmama.

Wainwright’s original remains the definitive version, however. Enjoy this sweet reminder of summer today.

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.

Song of the Day, October 15: Talk to Me of Mendocino by Kate McGarrigle

KateMRufusMarthaWToday’s song is Talk to Me of Mendocino. It’s a loosely autobiographical song that Kate McGarrigle wrote. It first appeared on her album with her sister, 1975’s stunning Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Originally performed as a duet between the sisters with a piano accompaniment, it was a staple of their live shows. In later years, when her children Rufus and Martha Wainwright frequently joined the live shows, the three of them regularly performed a version arranged for guitar instead. The original is haunting and lovely, but there’s something added to the magic with the three voices and the quieter instrumentation. It was captured brilliantly on the family outing recorded for The McGarrigle Hour.

Mendocino is a song of yearning and wandering. Told in poignant vignettes, it is deeply personal and yet resonates on a more universal level. It’s one of the late Kate McGarrigle’s finest songs.

Talk to me of Mendocino
Closing my eyes I hear the sea
Must I wait, must I follow?
Won’t you say “Come with me?”

Enjoy this lovely song today.

Song of the Day, January 7: Dig My Grave by Kate and Anna McGarrigle with Chaim Tannenbaum

ChaimDigToday’s song is Dig My Grave. Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s live shows often featured a regular cast of supporting singers and musicians. One stalwart is Chaim Tannenbaum, a talented singer and player of mandolin and banjo. When the sisters assembled their extended family for the McGarrigle Hour shows, Tannenbaum was naturally included. The liner notes for the album arising from the shows identify him as a

musical playmate of Kate & Anna’s since childhood.

He’s also contributed to album’s by Kate’s ex-husband, Loudon Wainwright III and many others.

Tannenbaum participates in many group vocal performances on the album, lending depth and texture to the songs. For Dig My Grave, he assumes the lead role, delivering a stunning performance. The song is a Bahamian spiritual that was a regular fixture of the sister’s shows for years. Enjoy this powerful vocal performance (from an earlier show) today.

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