The death of Kate McGarrigle last year highlighted how the McGarrigles have never quite received the attention or acclaim they deserved, not just as vocalists but as an outstanding songwriting partnership. More recently, they have widened their audience considerably through family gigs with the much missed Kate’s children Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright. The compiling of their material, either in greatest hits form or with a more substantial boxed set has been long overdue.
In some ways, then, this 3CD set, lovely as it is, is a slightly missed opportunity, focusing rather narrowly on the early stages of their career. Perhaps licensing issues got in the way, but a set covering a wider cross section of their career would have been wonderful, particularly as some of their later work remains hard to find on CD. One of their very finest songs, I Eat Dinner, comes from 1990’s now import only Heartbeats Accelerating and sadly lies well outside the scope of this set.
That being said, the first two albums collected here (the self titled debut from 1976 and its successor from 1977 Dancer With Bruised Knees) probably remain their most consistent and powerful albums. What this set lacks in breadth, it more than compensates for in terms of sheer quality. Those new to the McGarrigles’ catalogue will find this a tremendous starting point.
On the outstanding debut album, the sisters moved nimbly through various styles, from New Orleans-influenced blues (with this and the Quebecois angle, French influences remained a stylistic constant throughout their career) to banjo-laden folk. What truly stands out here is their ballad songwriting, tinged with an almost unbearable sadness. Three songs could easily claim a rightful place in a list of modern standards. Tell My Sister, with its idiosyncratic arrangement, incorporating saxophone section, is a languid highlight. Heart Like A Wheel is beautiful and devastating – the killer line, delivered in the sisters’ uniquely touching and fragile harmony, being “it’s only love, it’s only love, that can wreck a human being and turn him inside out”. Although better known covered by Linda Ronstadt, this original is arguably more overwhelming (Ronstadt’s version is less ethereal, more a straightforward piano ballad). Arguably even better is the wistful, aching Talk To Me Of Mendocino.
Dancer With Bruised Knees further emphasised the French influence and perhaps also the more lightweight aspects of their writing. More traditional in tone, with hints of bluegrass and cajun influences. it was arguably a little less accessible and a more modest in scope. The open-minded approach to songwriting and arranging that characterised their debut was scaled back somewhat. Still, there is much to admire. The assembly of musicians accompanying the sisters was first rate, with some of the subtle grooves delivered by none other than master session drummer Steve Gadd. Perhaps the most notable guest appearance was from John Cale, who played marimba on Be My Baby and organ on the marvelous title track. Highlights include the theatrical Kitty, Come Home and the sincere First Born. It now sounds like an enjoyable, frequently touching set that only feels disappointing in the context of the masterful debut that preceded it. It deserves reappraisal, not least for the wonderful attention to detail in the musicianship.
Packaged with the two albums in this set is the inevitable collection of unearthed demos, lovingly curated by producer Joe Boyd. There are a number of prototypes recorded at the piano or with a lone acoustic guitar, some with different lyrics. These are never any less than interesting, but probably only of substantial value to completists. More exciting are the handful of previously unreleased songs, including the quivering, majestic Saratoga Summer Song and a poignant version of Loudon Wainwright‘s Over The Hill, originally released as a duet with Kate on Loudon’s album Unrequited. The splendid Oliver, Remember Me manages to condense an extraordinary amount of feeling and sadness into its alarmingly brief one and a half minutes. The folk ballad Willie Moore is a delightful find too.
Whilst not the fully comprehensive McGarrigle set that is surely needed, Tell My Sister is a lovingly presented collection and a strong argument for raising the profile of the McGarrigles within the songwriting pantheon. It’s a fantastic introduction to their work.