Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kate & Anna: A Dynamic Duo

I check music out of the library a lot. Recently I had a chance to visit the best library in my system for music. I had no "wish list" (I have failed to maintain that indispensable guide in my wallet), so instead I just meandered in Hingham's incredible collection. It was like I was in a used record shop--except the consequences of picking up all those CDs wouldn't be expensive!

How thrilled I was to discover two old favorites of mine by Kate and Anna McGarrigle! I'd like to focus in this blog on Dancer with Bruised Knees, a 1977 release that I know by heart and love dearly.

Dancer was the duo's second album after their critically acclaimed debut. They were signed to Warner Brothers at the time. Linda Ronstadt had brought popular attention to them with her recording of Anna's "Heart Like a Wheel". This sophomore effort is lighter in spirit than their debut. I recommend it as an introduction to them.

The title track is a lovely harmonious ride with a distinctive chorus.

For years we had been one with the stars
A pas de deux of renown
I'd leap and he'd catch me on the fly
And gently he'd put me down

This song opens with a spoken passage, and ends with vocal "whoops". It's very catchy.

Kate McGarrigle was married to Loudon Wainwright--she is the mother of Rufus and Martha. I've always found it remarkable how similar her comic sensibility is to her ex-husband's. Take the ballad "Southern Boys".

Buttered grits is fare for breakfast
And if you like and your aim is good
Maybe a squirrel
Ten around nine we tap that moonshine
And it's on out to the porch for a moonlight swing
With me, your Northern girl

In this song the humor is tinged with melancholy (a hallmark of Loudon's writing). "I don't mind the hurt/cause the feeling's worth the fall" Kate later sings. Her contributions to this album are stunning. I love the gentle rocking pace of "Walking Song":

Wouldn't it be nice to walk together
Baring our souls while wearing out the leather
We could talk shop, harmonize a song
Wouldn't it be nice to walk along

As I type those lyrics I can feel the rhythm of Kate's piano playing. It goes on about all the subjects that Kate and her walking partner could discuss, and ends cleverly.

This song like this walk I find hard to end
Be my lover be my friend
In sneakers or boots or regulation shoes
Walking beside you
I'll never get the walking blues

Kate & Anna are Canadians, and their early years are satirized by Rufus and Martha on a You Tube birthday greeting. Setting is a strong presence throughout their music. Their sound is clear and clean, and their emotions baldly honest, as in Kate's song "Come a Long Way", the album's last track. It begins:

We've come a long way since we last shook hands
Still got a long way to go
Couldn't see the flowers when we last shook hands

At this point the listener might be thinking, "Oh, this is a relationship that's just starting out. Couldn't see the flowers? Well, that's because they're in the other hand and hidden behind the giver's back. Flower-giving. Another step on the road." But then the zinger quickly follows.

Couldn't see the flowers on account of the snow

Perhaps this song is describing a meeting with Loudon. Especially when talk of bearing a cross comes up.

What did you do with your burden and your cross
Did you carry yourself or did you crack?
We both know that a burden and a cross
Can only be carried on one man's back

This song was actually first recorded by Loudon on 1973's Attempted Mustache. Kate, in speaking about this marriage, talked about how their artistic competitiveness fed into the breakup. It must have rankled Loudon at the time because he was known as the singer of the novelty song "Dead Skunk" while his wife and sister-in-law were acclaimed as such terrific writers.

But talk about melancholy! Here's a passage later in the song.

Give me your hand for the parting touch
Fare thee well and thanks a lot
I know we promised to keep in touch
But you and I know that we both forgot

The music counteracts these dour sentiments. It's sweet and moves at a rapid clip. (Anna harmonizes and plays the button accordion while Kate plays the banjo.) As a listener, you sing along and it's enjoyable just on that level. It is only now as I analyze the lyric that I realize what an artistic triumph it is.

If you're a Rufus fan, you must get this CD for "First Born", a darling dedication to him written by his mother. It will also appeal to you if you know French, because any Kate & Anna album features songs in their native language. (This album features four!) If you're a lover of stellar songwriting they must be appreciated!

The album was produced by the infamous Joe Boyd. I love his work on Warners with Geoff and Maria Muldaur. Boyd has also worked extensively with Richard Thompson, a good friend of Loudon's and the McGarrigles.

Dancer with Bruised Knees probably marked the commercial apex for the McGarrigles. They released two more works on the Warner Brothers label, The French Record and Pronto Monto (featuring the terrific science song "NaCl") and then moved to Polydor for Love Over and Over. Linda Ronstadt continued to record their work, and Emmylou Harris has long been an admirer.

Their recording pace has slowed considerably, but whenever they do release something new, it's an event worth celebrating. Their music is fresh and timeless, and a deep listening pleasure.

Click here for a clip of Kate & Anna with a very young
Rufus and Martha.
Click here for a lovely song, "Better Times Are Coming", from the soundtrack to Ken Burns's Civil War series

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