Hidden away in vaults and closets, the demo recordings of
the music we’ve grown to love can seem like mysterious treasure troves. In the
CD era, a time when deluxe reissue packages have become the norm, these demos
have been relatively common ways to provide more bang for the consumer buck.
Songs deemed not right for album projects at the time, or rough sketches of the
more fleshed-in musical creations familiar to those who owned the albums
before, are thrown in as extras to entice a new purchase of familiar classics.
That doesn’t mean, for the most part, that anybody listens to these bonus discs
more than once or twice.
The third disc in the new reissue package Tell My Sister collects 21 recordings
done before the release of the 1975 self-titled debut album by Kate & Anna
McGarrigle. Nine of these were done by Kate alone, before she summoned her
sister to her side, attempting to win her own record deal. Seven are originals
and covers never before released in any form by the McGarrigles. Most are actually
worthy of comparison to the magnificence of the first two studio albums, which
make up the other two discs in this set.
We’ll get back to the demos, but let’s discuss Kate & Anna McGarrigle and Dancer With Bruised Knees for a bit.
Once they won a record deal, they were given decent-sized recording budgets and
top-flight session players to work with. Despite the popular belief that such a
thing is the kiss of death for creativity (We’re looking at you, lo-fi), the
McGarrigle sisters, working in tandem with the legendary producer Joe Boyd (and
Greg Prestopino on the first record), came up with pitch-perfect performances
and arrangements. Boyd says in the liner notes that the second album was less
than the first, but long-time fans have looked at the two as peas in a magical
pod. There would be only five more full-length albums from Kate & Anna over
the next 20 years, all of them worth hearing, none of them as magnificent.
(Which is not to say Nonesuch shouldn’t collect the incredibly obscure if
admittedly sub-par Pronto Monto, and
the criminally out-of-print French Record for another two-fer so the entire catalog could be in print.)
The McGarrigles grew up in a musical family in Montreal, and they
absorbed influences from Quebecois traditions, American pop, blues, and
showtunes, and the wide variety of approaches in the acoustic folk revival of
the ‘60s. Like Kate’s first husband Loudon Wainwright III, they told musical
stories of events in their lives. Unlike him, they had prodigious technique at
their disposal on piano, guitar, banjo, and accordion. Songs written by either
Anna or Kate are deceptive in their complexity, with melodic and harmonic ideas
far harder to pull off than they might seem when hearing the relaxed sound of
Relaxed isn’t exactly the right word, actually. There is no
shortage of emotional content in these songs. Kate, in particular, sings of
heartbreak past and present; her marriage to Wainwright was crumbling during
the recording of the first album (with an infant Rufus Wainwright present at
the sessions), and the song “Go Leave” is clearly aimed at him. But even in
that song, which may be one of the most heartbreakingly confessional ever
recorded, there is the presence of past happiness, and the clinging to hope for
the future which sets it apart from a simple cry of sorrow. It’s hard to imagine writing at a time when
one’s feelings are so naked, but the craft on display here is breathtaking. The
bridge is a marvel of construction, as she climbs up the chords with a rhythmic
dexterity unheard in the rest of the song, then a falling down the scale as she
describes her tears with an internal rhyme of simplicity and exactitude.
Kate sings of her mixed emotions regarding Southern boys,
her dream of traveling across a continent for a lover (who was probably not
supportive), her joyous reunion with an absent lover, her desire to walk and
enjoy another’s company, her delight in and admiration for her son, and the
balance in her life. Anna sings of running away from a bad love, of total
devastation in love, of the changes love can bring over time, of the pains love
can bring, and of the hope that love will come. Looking back over this list,
it’s clear that Anna’s themes aren’t interesting enough unless her metaphors
are included; she says she will leave the town she loves completely to escape
the one who hurt her, she says the broken wheel of love can’t be mended, she
says the jigsaw puzzle of love can fade and fit differently eventually, she
says the beauty of a dance can lead to bruised knees. Oh, and she sings one
called “Be My Baby.” Sometimes direct discourse works fine.
Then there are the French songs. Anna co-wrote the
delightful “Complainte Pour Ste-Catherine,” which describes a 20-year war with
mosquitos with as ebullient a melody as anybody has ever created (and a pretty
nifty lead guitar from Andrew Gold, who just passed away recently), and the
stunningly gorgeous “Naufragee du Tendre (Shipwrecked)”. Two traditional Quebec folk songs, “Blance Comme la Neige”
and “Perrine Etait Servante,” are strung together as well to equally
pleasurable results. There was a reason
they decided to later record an entire album in French. Even without
understanding the lyrics, the musical joys of these songs are irresistible.
That’s because Kate and Anna McGarrigle have beautiful
voices which work even better in harmony and counterpoint than they do
individually. Unlike the Roches, the wonderful sister group marginally more
popular to whom they are often compared (perhaps because Wainwright went on to
marry Suzzy Roche next), the McGarrigles don’t often use traditional
choir-style harmonies. Instead, they developed their way of singing together
within their family, and it’s as idiosyncratically beautiful as their melodies
and ways of looking at the world. There is nothing out there as
spine-tinglingly devastating as the descant line Kate delivers on “Heart Like a
The demo disc doesn’t have as many harmonies, though when
they come, they are just as powerful. But it does allow us to focus on the
shape of these familiar songs. Without the distraction of extra voices
instrumental or vocal, the demos provide further evidence that these two women
had remarkable skills at fitting words to melody, and connecting chords which
would carry the tunes to even greater strengths. In one instance, the earliest
demo of Kate’s exquisitely melancholy “(Talk to Me of) Mendocino,” there is a
wrong step taken, with the addition of one more verse following her yearning
question, “Won’t you say “Come with me?”.” In every other case, the words are
exactly as necessary, no more, no less.
As for the unheard songs, one is an absolute masterpiece.
Kate’s “Saratoga Summer Song,” which nobody claims to have knowledge of when or
how it was recorded, is unlike anything else she ever wrote, but just as great.
A tale of pleasures found and taken, with a wistful knowledge that the past is
not like the present and yet should be recorded, this is a piece that sucks the
listener into an environment most likely never experienced. You can almost feel
the splash from jumping into the swimming area. “Willie Moore” is a more than
pleasant attempt to write an Irish-style folk song, and “Roses Blanches” is
another of those French songs that are so engaging. (I confess to feeling a bit
like Gomez Adams getting all excited whenever Morticia speaks French.)
Wainwright’s “Over the Hill” is given a lovely spin, and long-time collaborator
Chaim Tannenbaum is revealed as a capable songwriter himself with “Annie.” It’s
also interesting to note that demos for “The Work Song” and the terrific “On My
Way to Town” were recorded as early as 1974 even though they didn’t turn up
again until album number 4, 1983’s Love Over and Over.
Kate McGarrigle passed away early last year, and there is no
more collaboration between these two remarkably talented sisters. Anna
McGarrigle has appeared at some tributes to Kate, but one hopes that she, at
least, will carry on the legacy and provide more music. Until then, the
brilliance of their prior achievement, especially these first two albums now
remastered into a warm, open, and breathing clairity, deserves to be remembered
and enjoyed forever.
Leave,” “Heart Like a Wheel,” “Dancer With Bruised Knees,” “Naufragee du Tendre
(Shipwrecked)” STEVE PICK