Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Kate & Anna McGarrigle

  • Kate & Anna McGarrigle [Warner Bros., 1976] A
  • Dancer With Bruised Knees [Warner Bros., 1977] A
  • Pronto Monto [Warner Bros., 1978] B+
  • Love Over and Over [Polydor, 1983] A-
  • Heartbeats Accelerating [Private, 1990] ***
  • Matapedia [Hannibal, 1996] A-
  • The McGarrigle Hour [Hannibal, 1998] A-
  • The McGarrigle Christmas Hour [Nonesuch, 2005] ***
  • Odditties [Querbeservice, 2010] A-
  • Tell My Sister [Nonesuch, 2011] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Kate & Anna McGarrigle [Warner Bros., 1976]
A folkie apotheosis--dry and droll, tender, sweetly mocking its own sentiment, unfailingly intelligent. With melodies that are fetching rather than pretty (cf. Jean Ritchie) and lyrics that are not above a certain charming, even calculating, vulgarity (cf. Loudon Wainwright III). A

Dancer With Bruised Knees [Warner Bros., 1977]
Not as tuneful as some might wish, but even a bright melody must strike artists this subtle as unseemly, rather obvious. Rarely has the homely been rendered with such delicate sophistication: these women spend sixty or seventy grand trying to make a studio approximate a living room, or maybe a church basement on production numbers, and succeed! They are prim, wry, and sexy all at once, with a fondness for family life as it is actually lived--a repository of strength, surely, but also a repository of horrors--that is reflected in their version of folk instrumentation. Rather than on-the-road guitars (with their attendant corn about the wimmin at home) they rely on accordion, piano, organ; once when they need a drum they get the kind of oompah beat you still hear in parades. Even better than the debut, albeit harder. A

Pronto Monto [Warner Bros., 1978]
The blandout of this quiet but piquant duo is being blamed on producer David Nichtern's all-too-steady hand. And sure, I'd prefer tempos that deviated more than five degrees from dead ahead and tasty licks that didn't whisper monosodium glutamate. But I also expect that these tough, smart women consented readily enough to his devices, especially as their own songwriting now aspires to a sweet directness that Nichtern himself is better at (compare his "Just Another Broken Heart" to Anna's "Oh My Heart" or Kate's "Come Back Baby"). And I'll trade you Ann's "Bundle of Sorrow, Bundle of Joy" for the next Maria Muldaur album sound unheard. B+

Love Over and Over [Polydor, 1983]
Having reclaimed their equilibrium and resigned themselves to making their own music in their own place, the sisters come up with the rockingest album of their reluctant career, with Andrew Cowan's guitar a pervasive presence and Mark Knopfler himself sitting on one track. The effect is gratifyingly smart, tasty, and unforced, with every song perfectly articulated. But the equilibrium extends all too comfortably to the material itself--there's none of the wrenching luminosity of a "Mendocino" or a "Walking Song" or a "Bundle of Sorrow, Bundle of Joy." Which reminds us once again that careerism does have its artistic advantages. A-

Heartbeats Accelerating [Private, 1990]
your living room has a computer, theirs has a synthesizer ("I Eat Dinner," "Love Is") ***

Matapedia [Hannibal, 1996]
With their mom in the ground and their kids grown up, these tart schoolmarms manqué are left with the sun in the morning and the moon at night, both of which have their drawbacks. So they ponder the tangled history of folk music and their own irretrievable pasts, indulge their fatalism about serial monogamy and the poor getting poorer, and sum up their message in two terse titles with songs attached: "I Don't Know" and "Why Must We Die?" And now, if you'd care to come upstairs, they'd just as soon make love. Save the postmortems for morning. Which always comes, for better or worse. A-

The McGarrigle Hour [Hannibal, 1998]
The secret message of this family get-together, which literalizes the well-tended domesticity underlying every record they've made, is that self-expression is for kids. Let Rufus and Martha confess and emote, and sure, jolly Uncle Chaim into going public with that lonely tune of his--it's so modest it'll fit right in. Because what the grown-ups in charge are after is songs per se, songs of every provenance and orientation. Berlin and Porter and Foster at their most quiet and obscure, folk songs from hither and yon, that hootenanny refrain they were once so sick of, good old "Young Love." Loudon has no choice but to sing his heart out for once, and Linda is so peripheral she wonders why she dropped in. By the time Martha hits that impossible high note on a slow-dance finale originally cribbed from Schubert and Liszt for Earl Carroll's Vanities of 1931, we know she's not putting Mom and Dad on notice. She's just loving the song, loving the song. A-

The McGarrigle Christmas Hour [Nonesuch, 2005]
Great old songs they didn't write, dubious new ones they did ("Seven Joys of Mary," "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve"). ***

Odditties [Querbeservice, 2010]
A hodgepodge segmented to make sense as a sampler, all recorded by 1990 and most well before, consisting of: 1) Four Stephen Foster weepers, two Civil War and two early death, harmonized prettily instead of tartly. They're saccharine, yes, but wittingly so, and exposure plus comparison with a Foster comp I like convinced me that this was the most effective rendering of 19th-century parlor music I knew. 2) Two by Canadian folk icon Wade Hemsworth, a McGarrigles staple in their Mountain City Four days--the first a waltz that motorvates plenty after those weepers, the second in 5/4 and over my fundament. 3) A Quebecois encore done live in '76 and a Cajun two-step studio-stomped. Both leap the language barrier. 4) Four lost McGarrigles songs, three by Anna and a collaborator, one by Kate alone. All are worthy, two wondrous: Anna's threnody for her cat Louis, which is slight, and Kate's love song to Martha and her dolls, which is wiry. Play it for someone you love on Mother's Day. But be sure to check it out yourself first. A-

Tell My Sister [Nonesuch, 2011]
Since these "demos and unreleased recordings 1971-1974" are part of a superbly designed and moderately priced little box that also includes their extraordinary Warner Bros. albums of 1976 and 1977, I should specify that my grade is for the bonus disc, which although it includes only five titles unavailable in later versions is one of the most useful I know. Much as I love the debut, its intelligent gloss is no longer needed to put the music across; on the demos, spare piano highlights voices we now know to be delectable without the subtlest sweetening. Proudly selling herself, Kate especially is more forthright and less cunning--and also, poignantly, younger. In a few cases--I'd name "Kiss & Say Goodbye," "Tell My Sister," and "Blues in E"--the demos are even preferable. Special thanks too for Chaim Tannenbaum's unheard "Annie." And then there's the great prize: Kate's newly unearthed "Saratoga Summer Song," a fond, funny, ruefully dissolute chronicle of a hippie summer that casually epitomizes both concepts--not just "hippie," but "summer." A

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