Endorsement: Kate and Anna McGarrigle

I’ve gotta take a pause from songwriting and/or Allen Toussaint fetishizing and switch the subject of my gaze to another celestial object: the McGarrigle sisters, Kate and Anna.  Perhaps you don’t know them at all, or perhaps you know them only as Rufus and Martha Wainwright’s mother and aunt, respectively.  In my family, our introduction was the 1998 album The McGarrigle Hour, a family album featuring Kate and Anna, Rufus and Martha, Loudon Wainwright (Kate’s ex and Rufus and Martha’s dad), and a few family friends (Emmylou Harris, etc.).  That album blew us all away…. so very many highlights.  The chilling “Year of the Dragon,” with its ambivalence about being in the so-called prime of life, is still my favorite Martha tune, and numerous Kate and Anna chestnuts like “Cool River” and “Talk to Me of Mendocino” are gorgeously done.  Suffice to say, I’ve listened to that record a lot.  I think my mom has too.  And my brother.  Not so sure about my dad, but maybe.

I’d always heard about the brilliance of their 1975 debut, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and when Kate passed away recently I finally got off my duff and purchased it.  It is hard to overstate how amazing this record is.  The band is incredible — to paraphrase Steve Buscemi’s character in Fargo, when ya got Steve Gadd on drums and Bobby Keys on sax, ya got no complaints — and the vocal performances of Kate and Anna are human and textured and honest and emotional and riveting.

But!  I’d rather talk about the songwriting, which manages to ascend higher still.  Rufus and Martha come by their talents honestly, and they’ve got balls: if I grew up with Kate and Anna as my mom and aunt, I think I’d be so floored by this record that I wouldn’t dare attempt anything.  Kate and Anna, on their first record, seem to have swallowed Irving Berlin and Cole Porter whole (the mastery of chord changes, yes, but also the wit and gentle subversion), and yet, it never seems like an imitation.

My favorite moment (at least tonight) comes from “Swimming Song”, a wry and subversive riff on risk-taking.  Its message is, “Can you believe how crazy I was this summer?  I went swimming!  I got chlorine in my eyes!  I could’ve drowned!  What was I thinking?  Everything worked out, but…. how crazy.”  (I’m paraphrasing.)  The language is deliberately formal, showing just how much they’ve shocked their Victorian alter egos with this outrageous behavior.  Here’s my favorite lyric: “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.”  Sigh.  How do you write like that?  Talking about skinny-dipping in such a coy and spirited way, while whipping off a tasty bit of wordplay (“informal-former”) and tossing in a great use of the phrase “to boot.”  Not fair.  [OK, I just double-checked and this song was actually written by Loudon Wainwright.  But hey, talented family.]

So much to learn.  If you have any love for the Great American Songbook and its torch-bearers, get this record.  R.I.P. Kate.

P.S.  At the risk of undercutting my solemn tribute, here’s a 1991 video featuring Kate, Anna, and an awkward teenage Rufus doing a Stephen Foster cover.  This is some seriously Canadian stuff.  Stick around for Rufus’s solo at the 1:00 mark.  I find it heartening that everyone goes through growing pains.

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