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Kate & Anna McGarrigle: The McGarrigle Hour

Album: The McGarrigle Hour
Label: Hannibal/Rykodisc

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Much of the joy of folk music is derived from each player's place in an ever-flowing continuum: Folk is less about progress than revisiting and reinterpreting material from the past. That said, Kate & Anna McGarrigle are as much an inextricable part of that past, albeit a not-too-distant past, as any recording artist. The Canadian sisters rose to prominence in the '70s, in an era that had already seen folk absorbed into the mainstream as more than just an outlet for protest. Musicians like Bob Dylan had illustrated that the spirits of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger could be fused with modern pop forms, while European groups like Fairport Convention mined their Celtic roots for some stunning folk-rock innovations. The McGarrigle sisters' literate songs and beautiful harmonies immediately made them folk standard-bearers, and their material continues to be revisited by such envious peers as Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. Both Ronstadt and Harris make appearances on the new The McGarrigle Hour, which exemplifies the continuum in a literal sense: The players are primarily from the McGarrigles' direct circle of friends and family. There's Kate's ex-husband, Loudon Wainwright III, with their kids Rufus and Martha. Then there's Anna and husband Dane Lanken, with their two children, Lily and Sylvan. Anna and Kate's sister Jane makes an appearance, as do many of the players, like Chaim Tannenbaum, who have helped them out over the 20-odd years they've been recording together. To top it all off, the record is produced by folk veteran Joe Boyd, best known for his work with Fairport Convention and the McGarrigle sisters' first two records. The material included is a selection of McGarrigle favorites, which includes some of their own songs, but mostly, and humbly, it's dominated by classics by the likes of Irving Berlin ("What'll I Do") and Cole Porter ("Allez-Vous-En"), and arrangements of traditional songs like "Dig My Grave." Even more humbly, Kate and Anna often pass off lead-vocal duties to their friends or family members, like Rufus' solo take on his own "Heartbreak" or Harris on the Cajun "Porte En Arriere" (sung in French, no less). It's too bad that the McGarrigles' only album of all-new material this decade has been 1996's wonderful Matapedia, but The McGarrigle Hour's lovely family-affair atmosphere makes for a superb stopgap.