Picture a game of dress-up where everyone agrees to act out Little Women, and you’ll get the concept of The McGarrigle Hour: fun by the book, steeped in love and history, a sentimentalization of family that in other hands might have been suspect, and still is, a little. Kate and Anna McGarrigle have real home ties, and I mean the house where you were raised, in a beautiful hamlet outside Montreal where your mother lived until her death a few years ago, at 91. They had parents who taught them to cherish century-old songs about girls who died at the first blush of sexuality, and to believe that there was no purer form of community or entertainment than to sit around with your friends making music. Swallowing this whole may have cost them a different kind of career than the one that has produced a total of three albums since 1983, with evocations of Emily Dickinson and winter by faithful critics that never worked for me. But The McGarrigle Hour is as different from their previous two releases as a mother after a good night’s sleep is from one who has done without. Children do grow up, and the four that Kate and Anna have spent so much of their lives raising seem to have made a good job of it, maturing at just the right moment to free their moms for the summing up they’d never realized they needed— and to pay tribute to their grandmother at the same time.
Instead of simply pushing their kids onstage singing shining songs of old, which could have been downright smarmy, the McGarrigles devised a more elaborate fiction— a 21-track Thanksgiving feast rather than a simple Sunday-afternoon get-together. The result crisscrosses idioms with performers and cherishes popular and folk forms without smothering them. Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Kate’s two kids by her notorious marriage, unveil an impressive original apiece and take charge of material by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, and Anna’s daughter Lily Lanken pays homage to Grandma Gaby’s favorite, “Alice Blue Gown.” And that’s just the solo stuff on a record most notable for the way genes inflect duets, trios, and quartets with parents and other relatives. The McGarrigles’ extended musical family has cherished many of these tunes, privately and collectively, for years. The only difference is that now there’s an audience: us.
The one thing The McGarrigle Hour lacks is new material, which normally dominates Kate and Anna’s product, and the album’s subtle achievement is how much it’s about them and all their significant others anyway. Recutting “Talk to Me of Mendocino,” Kate recalls her youthful yearning for the road, just as Anna’s first recording of “Cool River” reaffirms her preference for the comforts of home. Perennial sideman and family friend Chaim Tannenbaum strolls through “Time on My Hands,” the only original he’s ever let out into the world. And when ex and kids do Loudon Wainwright III’s “School Days,” the first song on his first album and also on this one, his perpetual callowness flashes into perspective, at once rebuked and accepted.
Kate and Anna took great care with this celebration. It’s a successful Thanksgiving dinner; no one is neglected, everyone’s happy to see everyone else, and the dessert dishes are sorted out ahead of time so the party will be more fun for the hostesses. “School Days” is no “Swimming Song,” but it has meaning in a context where all songs and participants get respect, on a pedestal for a few minutes right next to Stephen Foster and the frighteningly precocious up-and-coming generation. No one would have felt put out if the dinner had never happened; the loyalty of their peers and admirers was already a given, almost an embarrassment, and requires no thank yous. But it forces us all, participants and audience alike, to consider once again the music we grew up with and forgot, in all its diversity, fecundity, and strength.
There are drop-ins from the past, too, most impressively Linda Ronstadt, who alights like an angel on “Gentle Annie.” Emmylou Harris delivers “Green Rocky Road” from ’60s nostalgia to blend with children’s songs from other eras. Kate and Anna do the same for their expat friend, onetime up-and-comer Jesse Winchester, on “Skip Rope Song.” Welcoming these names and voices and then assigning them kiddie songs was a stroke; their collective weight underscores not only children’s centrality in any family, but how effortlessly their songs lace innocence with the macabre— almost as effortlessly as the McGarrigles do themselves.
The attention the McGarrigles lavish on their extended family seems especially generous in regards to Loudon. For although they probably don’t like him very much— literally and figuratively, he’s always been the boy at the Little Women game who winds up playing doctor behind the couch with anyone who’s as bored as he is— they needed and wanted him to be part of this. His break with the matriarchy only led him to other matriarchies; maybe he kept leaving lest he wind up forgotten in the pantry, like the boy the McGarrigles sang about once who got devoured by rats. Yet it is their broken nuclear family— Kate, Loudon, Rufus, and Martha— that’s the soul of this project. Third sister and sometime collaborator Jane observes somewhat overpolitely in the liner notes that even though the four of them have never actually been together on Thanksgiving, they come together on “What’ll I Do” as “natural as breathing.” I disagree. It’s not natural at all, will probably never happen again, and good luck to every one of them. It’s the tension between one family’s expectations and what they actually worked out that breathes life into The McGarrigle Hour, not some fairytale.