Special Review: McGarrigle Sister's by Bob Franke
The McGarrigles

Kate and Anna McGarrigle

Reviewed by Bob Franke

Matapedia explores the deepest levels of myth and mortality with the collaborative skills of at least two master singer-songwriters and a group of long-term musical associates. The sisters ask big questions in this wonderful album, and use family history and archetypal myth to at least partially come to terms with them. These are beautiful, compelling songs that seek and find the universal in concrete times, places and lives.

Kate's title cut begins with a story of curious but serene meeting between the writer's daughter and a figure from the mother's past, evoking a new family story and forcing the writer to come to terms with the co-existence within herself of her lives as young lover and older parent. There is a point in life at which one's parenthood catapults one from living in two dimensions to accepting a third, that of time and mortality; this is the jumping off point for the whole suite of songs. Indeed, these songs could not have been written by people unacquainted with parenthood or with the loss of a parent.

Anna's "Goin' Back to Harlan" celebrates the role that traditional music took in the lives of those of us who first discovered it in the mid sixties. The myths it offered were not the ones that our parents, damaged by the traumas of World War II and the Great Depression, sought to create and cling to. Even in their relative innocence, Ozzie and Harriet (and their successors the Brady Bunch) had little to offer us compared to the likes of Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender; life seemed to us a bit closer to the class conflict, passion and violence portrayed in the old songs than the postwar utopia longed for by the '50s TV show and parodied by the '70s one. The original singers of those songs seemed to have a different relation to history and culture than our parents did, and that relationship especially fascinated those of us whose second- and third-generation ethnicity, for economic reasons, had been sacrificed to the ideal of the "melting pot".

Kate refocuses this fascination and melds it to a French Canadian ethnicity in "Jacques et Gilles". She creates a myth--to a wonderful variation on the tune of the old nursery rhyme "Jack and Jill"--that turns a loving but not a flattering eye on her forbears, and gives in its detail a hint at what it may have felt like to grow up both Irish and French in a French Canadian world. In doing so she crosses a line, becoming not only the great existential songwriter she's always been, but, in coming to terms with her history, something of a tradition bearer herself.

One is shocked into coming to terms in this way by the knowledge of death, which is a big character in this musical suite. Both in the sisters' collaboration with Joel Zifkin, "Why Must We Die" (which uses this title as a chorus), and in Anna's "Song for Gaby", death is a stunning intruder in any imagined utopia or real family. In "Song for Gaby" no family names are changed to protect the innocent; innocence is irrelevant in the face of death. Another major mythic character here, which emerges as at least a partial answer to death, is Eros. In "Arbre", Anna's collaboration with Philippe Tatartcheff, the singer takes on the persona of a tree in autumn, losing her leaves to the caress of her lover the wind. This song, in French, has an intense eroticism and multiple layers of meaning: the tree anticipates winter not only with acceptance but with pleasure, but there is also the possibility of a violent betrayal, or in acceptance, a misunderstanding of the violent nature of death. Erotic love, or more accurately perhaps, the courage to attempt it, is celebrated in Kate's "Talk About It", even as love's cruelty is unmistakably asserted in her "I Don't Know".

In the album's last song, Anna's "The Bike Song", the final word goes not to Eros, but to a cold and distant if lovely moon. Eros has failed, time drags on, only the memory of the mother is left. The singer remains in a bitter loss, and a lament as easily that of an orphaned child as that of a spurned lover:
What is it that I had to be
To make you fall in love with me.

The CD's cover evokes a texture of rust and lichen interspersed with distorted images of Kate and Anna in an abandoned rail yard. Yet the overall impression of this deep and complex work is one of overwhelming beauty and courage, and the kind of family devotion rooted in truth that Hollywood only wishes it could co-opt. Matapedia's musical vocabulary includes the whole McGarrigle spectrum to date, which is a mix of traditions from the French chanson to Victorian parlor music to Thompson-esque rock. The sisters have been a lot of places, but no place richer than home.

Disclaimer: I have no connection with Hannibal or Rykodisc, although I did have a nice chat with Kate on a bus in Winnipeg years ago. I just thought that when work like this gets done, it ought to be talked about without recourse to the word "units". - Bob

copyright 1996 - Bob Franke

Singer-songwriter Bob Franke's current recording on the Daring label, "The Heart of the Flower", was one of the Boston Globe's top 5 acoustic CDs of 1995.
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