Like other things about the McGarrigle sisters, their timing was odd. Their first album arrived in early ’76, just as the pop tide was turning against sensitivity and soft-rock and towards a more rugged engagement with the world. A pumped-up Bruce Springsteen was atop the charts with Born To Run. The Ramones and the Sex Pistols were collecting their first reviews.
What price a pair of homey Canadians lamenting hearts that refused to mend, trilling about St Catherine (in French!) or resurrecting cornball folk anthems like “Travellin’ On For Jesus”, all to a backdrop of piano, squeezebox and clarinet?
Against the odds, perhaps, Kate & Anna McGarrigle found instant favour among critics, though their acclaim couldn’t stop the record perishing where Warners executives had hoped it might clean up. After all, “Heart Like A Wheel”, one of its songs, had just spent a year on the US charts as the title track of a Linda Ronstadt album. Another hippy princess, Maria Muldaur, had covered the McGarrigles’ “Cool River”.
What the critics heard that the American public didn’t (in the UK Kate & Anna… acquired cult status) was firstly a pair of sublime voices, combined in the effortless harmonies that only siblings seem able to provide (a third, elder sister, Jane, also contributed). Clear, confident but wry, the voices were inseparable from songs that dealt coolly with break-up (“Go Leave”, “Kiss And Say Goodbye”), bore sadness stoically (“Heart Like A Wheel”) and recognised beauty with wistful joy (“(Talk To Me Of) Mendocino”).
For good measure came “Foolish You”, a perennial unknown outside Canada’s borders and a cover of Loudon Wainwright’s droll “Swimming Song”. Wainwright’s marriage to Kate was foundering as the songs chronicling its demise arrived: “Tell my sister to tell my mother I’m coming home alone…”
With its unusual backings, overseen by producers Joe Boyd and Greg Prestopino, Kate & Anna… seemed to have arrived from nowhere. In fact, the sisters had history aplenty, stretching from the parlour of the Quebec home where they had grown up hearing their father play antique Stephen Foster songs, to time in folk group the Montreal City Four, and, in Kate’s case, to a nearly-made-it career in New York.
Becoming a duo only arrived after their songs (usually written singly) were picked up by Muldaur and Ronstadt. Demos, including several that never made it to album, are gathered on disc three here, either from a showcase Kate cut in 1971 or run-throughs from 1974. In either case, their facility is startling – Boyd was “afraid they might expose our production as overdone” – and fans will treasure Kate’s “Saratoga Summer Song” where she recalls such teenage delights as “having crushes, dimming lights to hide the blushes”.
Early songs like “Southern Boys” showed up on Dancer With Bruised Knees, 1977’s seamless follow-on from their debut. Again it embraced family life (“First Born”, “Kitty Come Home”) and togetherness (“Walking Song”, “Homage A Grungie”). There were waltzes, and a touch of French-Canadian frost on the pretty “Blanche Comme La Neige” (the sisters grew up speaking English at home, French at school). Its charms were solemn and witty.
Like its predecessor Dancer… wowed fans while stalling commercially, not helped by the sisters’ aversion to touring schedules; they had children to raise, among them Kate’s Rufus and Martha, who in future would extend the dynasty. Opting for artistry rather than fame, the sisters never did respect music business rules. Their concerts weren’t slick, but like their songs, they showed two women in control. And while the gloss on other songwriters of the era has vanished, the McGarrigles’ groundedness – they never did stray far from that parlour – has prevailed, even after Kate’s death in 2010: the event that occasioned this reissue of family treasures.
Photo: Benno Friedman