CD Review: “Tell My Sister” by Kate & Anna McGarrigle
Kate & Anna McGarrigle are the iconic Canadian folk duo at the center (with many others) of the seventies folk revival. Accomplished songwriters and wonderful performers, they were contemporary with (and influenced) the early careers of stars like Emmylou Harris, Maria Muldaur and Linda Ronstadt. All performed their songs and used their harmonies; Linda Ronstadt had a huge hit with Anna’s “Heart Like a Wheel”. But no one did the McGarrigle’s songs like the McGarrigles.
Their self-titled debut album (1976) was ecstatically reviewed but for some reason didn’t sell a whole lot; the follow-up Dancer With Bruised Knees (1977) was equally accomplished but didn’t sell any better. Both remain beloved recordings within the McGarrigle fandom, but have had spotty availability over the years. The original recordings were well-recorded, with the debut being particularly noteworthy for the quality of the production and mastering. However, CD transfers were not as successful, and I’ve never been happy with the CDs I’d acquired.
Thankfully, we now have this wonderful re-release of the first two CDs, along with a third CD of various demos and outtakes. Joe Boyd, original producer of both albums, has beautifully remixed and remastered both recordings. The result is a level of clarity and beauty well beyond the original vinyl and certainly beyond the available CDs. It’s been a job performed with love.
Of course, the real story is the music, as wonderful, fresh and timely as when it was recorded more than thirty years ago. Kate & Anna McGarrigle has enduring classics like “Heart Like A Wheel”, “(Talk to me of) Mendocino”, “Tell My Sister” and Loudon Wainwright’s “The Swimming Song” (he was Kate’s so0n-to-be-ex husband). Dancer with Bruised Knees features classics like “Southern Boys”, “Walking Song” and the heart-rending “Kitty Come Home”, written by Anna for Kate on the occasion of her painful separation from Loudon. The demos and unreleased recordings from 1971 to 1974 include original minimalist versions of many of the album titles, with a number of additional titles not available elsewhere. It is all wonderful.
That the McGarrigles were masterful songwriters has been evident forever; that they performed some of the most beautiful harmony work ever recorded is also beyond doubt. The harmonies on these recordings were all recorded live, with the two sisters singing together, the air vibrating with the merger of their two voices. Separately recording harmony lines can work beautifully, but it will never capture the visceral interaction of live duet singing.
The two recordings here were the beginning, but not the end. The sisters recorded many more albums, most of them very fine, many outstanding. Nothing has ever overshadowed these two, though.
Kate McGarrigle died in early 2010, leaving many of us bereft. Ironically, her death has brought the sisters’ partnership into sharper relief, with a number of projects going forward in Kate’s name. Two concerts were recently peformed and recorded in New York in her memory, featuring Anna, Kate’s children Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Emmylou Harris, Teddy Thompson, Jenni Muldaur and many others (see Arlene’s ND review here). These are being made into a concert recording. And now we have these wonderful re-released recordings. Life is good, although much emptier without Kate.
Here are some nice musical links from YouTube with music from these recordings:
Emmylou Harris was a close friend of Kate’s, and was deeply affected by her death. The result is a wonderful tribute, in the form of “Darlin’ Kate”, on Emmylou’s recent Hard Bargain, which she performed at the tribute concert, and at SXSW. Here is the latter: