Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock & Roll &

Sister Oh Sister

book cover

Released in 1976 and 1977, with the marginal movements of punk and disco revolutionizing popular music, Kate and Anna McGarrigle's Kate & Anna McGarrigle and Dancer With Bruised Knees are cult records. The McGarrigles were folkies who will never become iconic the way the Ramones and Saturday Night Fever soon did. But neither were they obscure: when Kate died of cancer early last year, the tributes flooded in like she was Marlene Dietrich. It helped that Kate's son with Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright, is more renowned than either of his parents. It also helped that the McGarrigles hailed from Canada, which promotes its artists like the national assets they are. But the main reason is the two albums themselves. Cult records they are. Classics they also are.

Though the McGarrigles ended up recording less music than I'd hoped in 1976, there's enough, and most of it will endure. But the first two albums are indelible--since 1980, I've revisited them more often than any of my punk-era faves except maybe Rocket to Russia. In part it's the material, in part something subtler, as came clear when I somewhat apprehensively test-played the bonus disc of Tell My Sister, Nonesuch's handsome, economical reissue of the two classics. Only Dylanologists and smitten fanboys need the detritus that fills most bonus discs. But that wasn't how this one felt even though half of its 21 songs were also available on the two accompanying albums--in what must be, given how I've been raving, definitive interpretations. I appreciated the previously unheard material, especially a lost masterpiece about the almost carefree pleasures of a hippie summer called "Saratoga Summer Song." But mostly the bonus disc succeeds for the same reasons I'm always introjecting these records into my musically oversaturated home life.

I've called the McGarrigles folkies, a mildly belittling characterization that seems fairer than ever now that I've read the Dane Lanken coffee-table book Kate and Anna McGarrigle: Songs and Stories, which I liked so much that my wife bought me one for my birthday. But as is invariably pointed out, Kate and Anna were domestic folkies. They made piano-and-accordion music not guitar music, parlor music not campfire music, stay-at-home music not on-the-road music; rather than pretty or gorgeous or powerful, their voices were just beautiful, in a proudly plain way. Products of a household where everybody sang, they meshed perfectly with the give-and-take sociability of chopping 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 Browne and 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 Peter Asher could have countenanced for Ronstadt--Steve Gadd pokey, Bobby Keys laid-back. Nevertheless, parlors seldom come equipped with trap sets and saxophone honchos, and when a full band and Anna's harmonies rev up around Kate's ebullient "And I don't know where it's coming from/But I want to kiss you till my mouth gets numb," we who love this record recognize a representation of the casual--and the ecstatic. The bonus-disc demo is very different--solo with clunkier piano, only then toward the climax Anna's harmonies sidle in, and soon a guitar is quietly kibitzing. The song is so good, as I know because Boyd softened me up, that right now I prefer the bare-bones conversation of this truly living-room version (which was recorded in a studio).

I understand why most McGarrigles fans swear by the debut, which listens easy without ever going soft or making room for a merely good song. Topping even Anna's "My Town" and "Heart Like a Wheel" and her own "(Talk to Me of) Mendocino" and "Tell My Sister," Kate's Loudon farewell "Go Leave," taken solo with guitar, is regarded by some sachems of sorrow as the most bereft breakup song ever recorded; although it's perfectly written--the disarming six-word opening, the enjambed "aching"-"breaking," the intrusion of the blunt "stalling" three lines from the end--quoting even a couplet would do a disservice to its power as music. Nevertheless, my own beloved has always been Dancer With Bruised Knees, where the McGarrigles perfected their aesthetic. Although a few of the debut's Stateside session heavies reappear, most of the music comes from the evolving crew of Montreal folkies the sisters started hanging with as teenagers. These include Dawson College philosophy prof Chaim Tannenbaum on harmonica, mandolin, recorder, and backing vocals as well as trumpeter-vocalist Dane Lanken, a journalist already encountered above as an author and thought of by many as Mr. Anna McGarrigle.

What I love so hard about this lovely, homely album is that it doesn't listen so easy. It risks an austerity that rings as true in eat-the-poor 2011 as it did in high-punk 1977. Its melodies run deeper, its beats are less swinging even with jazzmen on five tracks, and it risks the cognitive dissonance of three songs in French that won'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 your life's companion, which my wife and I have been putting on each other's mixtapes since I turned 40, and for "First Born," about a privileged kind of son who could be Rufus, Loudon, or even me. But my thematic preferences don't stop me from admiring how the album ends with two songs about circling back to zero without your life's companion, one by Anna called "Kitty Come Home" and one by Kitty herself.

Kate was the motivator, declares Anna, born 14 months earlier on December 4, 1944. Kate taught herself banjo and blues; Kate set out for 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 sister to 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 to this pledge, not because Kate's somewhat fuller voice and bigger songs rendered her musically dominant, as to some slight extent they did, but because if Anna had died first, Kate would have been hard-pressed to go on alone as well.

Their signature trick, after all, was that singular synthesis of timbre and intonation, nature and nurture, that has raised up the harmony of so many siblings. But harmonizing families aren't all alike--consanguinity didn't help the Osmonds much. The McGarrigles were blessed in addition by their long immersion in the Celtic mysteries of French-Canadian song and the contrarian intelligence of their eccentric close harmonies. This intelligence also inflected the physical cast of their voices. They're female, and Anna's voice especially has a courageous fragility about it, so their male admirers can'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 bigger reason the sisters needed each other artistically: to complete their domestic arrangement, which combined two radically different households and spanned four generations. Lanken outlines a childhood in which both grandfathers were music-mad, one as an impresario-performer and the other as a fan. Musicales at their childhood home in the modest ski town of Saint-Sauveur featured Stephen Foster, pre-WWI chestnuts from a songbook Kate committed to memory, 13 senior Francophone siblings with their own specialty numbers, and not two but three singing McGarrigle sisters--the eldest, Jane, produced the duo's fifth album and has joined in occasionally onstage. But then Kate and Anna's parents took an apartment in Montreal, and soon the two sisters had joined a shifting folkie ménage. Locally renowned as the Mountain City Four even though there were sometimes 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 to know blues like Kate or even paint in a garret like Anna. Yet long before their fame they were anything but marginal in their little community, which migrated from living room to living room, including one in Saint-Sauveur. Most of this I know from Lanken, who narrates via text and caption until Kate and Anna start getting serious press in 1976, at which point Songs and Stories turns into a generous clip file augmented by many more captions (the snapshots are exquisite throughout). But left out of this scrapbook is a piece I love from Ms. magazine. Poetically, it was written by my own sister, Georgia Christgau, and it examines ideas of family--as do the transcriptions of unpublished interviews with the sisters and their mother that Georgia miraculously dug out of her files when I solicited her recollections.

Interviewed separately, Kate and Anna each applied the word "incestuous" to their crew, and they weren't just being metaphorical; Kate told Georgia that Dane was the only man at a recent get-together that she'd never made love with--and that love was invariably involved. Anyone who thought "I want to kiss you till my mouth gets numb" was not imagery one ordinarily associates with parlor music should understand that this was no ordinary parlor. I believe Kate about the love part--by then she'd known these people 15 years, time to love quite a few fellow spirits 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, they instead guaranteed her an extra portion of the "love and concern" Anna promised in "Kitty Come Home." Georgia, who found herself pouring out her life story the day she hit Montreal, concluded that "intimacy is all Kate and Anna are really comfortable with."

The McGarrigles were at home in an exceptionally complex domestic arrangement that melded a traditional extended family of amateur musicians with a floating post-'60s collective of semi-professional ones. Either formation had the makings of a minefield riddled with repression or one-upmanship. But the McGarrigles' formations avoided such perils. They allowed you to feel what you felt and tolerated your mistakes when you were proving what you had to prove. It was a perfect environment for intimacy, meaning not just candor but all the improvements on the low-concept "heartfelt" and "natural" that surface in the appreciations Lanken has assembled: "civilizing," "strangely unsentimental," "translucently undramatic," "unselfconsciously reflective," "poignant and playful," "temperate, forthright and cheerful."

What none of this richly deserved praise suggests--though it's hardly a secret: the title song of the album Jane produced, Love Over and Over, makes a point of it--is that neither 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 among other 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, and culminate with "Talk About It," a 50-year-old's invitation to bed that promises, "We can talk about it in the morning/It'll come/It always does." There are even mother love songs, crowned by Kate's translucent "Babies if I Didn't Have You." Appreciations of their life's companion, no. Appreciations of their month's companion, ditto.

Although some of the McGarrigles' more benighted admirers consider this a virtue, it's clearly a failing, one as conducive to cult status as their acuity and reserve. But given their strange unsentimentality, it's a forgivable failing, because as anybody knows, it's easier 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: the aforementioned "Walking Song." It's wistful, imagined--Kate's vision of a Loudon, let's just say, ready to spend days hiking and talking, hopefully in Canada but Mexico would do. "Be my lover or be my friend," she proposes, or implores. This was an early song, and the available evidence suggests she never got her wish. So together with her sister she completed a circle of love that served as a substitute. And together with her sister she gave it to us. That's love too. In a way, all the McGarrigles' songs are love songs.

Barnes & Noble Review, May 4, 2011