Procol Harum

the Pale 

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A Procol Harum fan's recommendation

Roland from BtP on Kate and Anna McGarrigle

I've come across plenty of other good bands by following up the recommendations of people I've met through a mutual love of Procol Harum. Often the music is quite unlike Brooker/Reid material, yet in some way shares a Procol sensibility. It's possible, therefore, that a brief article about Kate and Anna McGarrigle will be of interest to readers of this website who are not already acquainted with this fascinating Canadian duo and their works.

Anna and Kate McGarrigleKate and Anna are Irish/Canadian singers from near Montreal: they perform in English and French, and they write their own songs and occasionally record cover-versions. Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright, by the way, are Kate's children with Loudon Wainwright III, and Anna's daughter Lily Lanken has appeared with them as well. One gets a great sense of 'family' from their records, on which the same outboard collaborators crop up again and again. A third sister, Jane, plays organ on several of their cuts. They hail from the same part of the world as Leonard Cohen, and some of his familiar yearning quality informs their work also.

Why would a Procol Harum fan like the McGarrigles? Both sisters play and write at the piano, though they also double and treble on banjos, guitars and accordions; live, I've seen Anna wrestling a long-scale bass guitar to comic effect. Their song-writing is careful and detailed, with much use of interesting chords. The accent is on plaintive textures, though a lot of the music is jubilant, and some of the songs are touchingly funny. Eccentric subjects are relatively commonplace: in NaCl they relate the origins of table-salt in terms of a marine romance: 'Somewhere in that sea lurks handsome Sodium ...' etc. Their lyrics are well-crafted and predominantly 'realist'; they have nothing like Cerdes or Whaling Stories in their catalogue. One finds their records filed under 'folk' – they use wooden instruments a lot of the time, and they don't always tour with a drum kit. But although their sound is quite delicate, it's also robustly individual. Like Procol Harum they are melodic and economical songsmiths.

A kind of Procol parallel is the fact that they began with a fantastic record, and have never quite matched, in the public imagination, that early promise. Their one significant hit – Complainte pour Ste Cathérine – is somewhat uncharacteristic, and people probably recognise its sound rather than its name. The sisters seem to have done very little to court publicity or maximise record-sales (one key album, Pronto Monto, is still unavailable on CD). As with Procol Harum in the days before the world-wide web, meeting a fellow-fan is a source of surprise and delight: 'I didn't think I'd ever meet anyone else who had noticed that bassline/pun/variant etc etc'. John Grayson of Shine On, Henrik Gøttrup of Ledreborg fame, and Frank Mead from No Stiletto Shoes are devotees: Gary Brooker has mentioned liking the album containing 'the one about the skull' ... (Perrine était Servante, in which rats gnaw a cranium: 'Ils ont rongé son crâne, puis tous les doigts de pied')

A couple of McGarrigle notices, strangely enough, already appear at this website: here and here (the second quotes a review of the 'breathtakingly brilliant' Kate and Anna McGarrigle in which the Croydon Advertiser said '… if they had purposely tried to sabotage their own act, they could not have done a better job … '). The McGarrigles self-evidently share Procol's high-quality / should-have-been-massive / started-at-the-top cult status. Moreover, they present such a wayward and whimsical face to the world, that being a PH fan seems almost straightforward by comparison. Their concerts are few and far between, and are characterised by strange anecdotes, rambling introductions that turn out to relate to a different song, diffident rapport with the audience, .. and then sudden shifts of gear into passionate playing or breathtaking bursts of harmony. Their vocal sound is unique, and unmistakable: as backing vocalists they have recorded to great effect with Nick Cave, Richard Thompson, and many others. Their material has been covered occasionally, but very well, by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Maria Muldaur.

This excerpt – 1977's Kitty Come Homeperhaps shows a slightly Procolesque quality, though it's not wholly characteristic of the sisters' oeuvre. The Amazon illustration (below) perhaps confirms that there's a real link here in people's minds.

Click here or here to find McGarrigle recordings! Listening list: 1975, Kate and Anna McGarrigle; 1976, Dancer with Bruised Knees; 1978, Pronto Monto; 1981, French Record; 1982, Love Over and Over; 1990, Heartbeats Accelerating; 1996, Matapédia; 2003, La vache qui pleure


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