Kate and Anna McGarrigle,
Matapedia
(Rykodisc, 1996)

When I first listened to Matapedia, I was expecting the crystalline harmonies I'd long associated with the Canadian McGarrigle sisters, but I was in for a surprise. Overall, the CD is introspective and wistful, bordering at times on melancholy. At the same time, a quiet power drives the music; there is nothing fragile about this CD. The songs are about life, love and longing, about defiance of fate and resignation which is sometimes world-weary and at other times wry. The harmonies are still there in some of the tracks, but the sisters sing with the seasoned voices of experience.

The sisters take turns with lead vocals for the songs, also backing themselves up with guitar, keyboards, banjo, piano, and accordion with Joel Zifkin on violin and Michel Pepin on percussion, guitar, bass and dobro. With the exception to the lyrics of "Arbre," all of the songs were written by one or both of the sisters. (Joel Zifkin contributed to the lyrics of "Why Must We Die?" as well.) Many of the songs reflect the women's French-Canadian and Celtic roots, and the sound is clear and cohesive.

The title and opening track is a look back at the immortality of adolescence; it is nostalgia without the schmaltz, and the pace of Kate's voice replicates the current of the river after which it is named. "Goin' Back to Harlan" is a haunting song about wanting to return to a childhood home. Fiddle tunes weave through the lyrics and music, calling to "Rock the gallows for the Hanged Man's Reel / And wake the Devil from his dream" with Kate's banjo providing a sharp counterpoint to Anna's vocals and Zifkin's violin. It's easily my favorite track on the CD.

The gentle piano melody, Kate's voice tinged with sorrow and the shimmering harmonies of "I Don't Know" belie such lyrics as "Love is like a bullet in a gun," which goes on to describe the painful impact of love and loss on a person. You find yourself lulled by the music until, suddenly, the words sink in. "Hang Out Your Heart" is also about the bittersweet pain of a difficult relationship, but with a driving rhythm, relentless as a locomotive, and wailing strings.

"Arbre" is a poem by Philippe Tartartcheff set to music by Anna McGarrigle, a delicate reflection on a tree in winter, awaiting spring. It is followed by "Jacques et Gilles," about the French-Canadians who crossed the border to work in the mills of New England and effectively set to a melody based on the nursery rhyme "Jack and Jill." Again, the theme of going home emerges as the children are told that the Irish workers agitating for labor rights do so because they've left their land behind and can't go home, where the French-Canadian family can.

"Why Must We Die?" demands an answer, yet recognizes that there is none in its final refrain "We are men of constant sorrow / We'll have trouble all our days..." underscored with a rollicking fiddle. It is paired with "Song for Gaby," a sorrowful, minor song with memorializes their mother in homely details such as the Adirondack chair in which she sat for "banjo-weekends" and images powerful in their simplicity, such as the loved ones whose song from the choir loft "waltzed her down the aisle."

"Talk About It" offers a wry look at the realities of relationships: "And we can talk about it when the morning comes / It'll come / It always does." The narrator of the song knows that things are not perfect but wants to let it go for now -- "Let's make love, not conversation." The rolling rhythm of Kate's lead vocals is underscored with a frankly sexy bass line and percussion, not to mention sassy-sounding background vocals and fiddle. "The Bike Song" also looks at relationships from an almost weary perspective, asking an age old question: "What is it that I had to be / To make you fall in love with me." The mellow chime-like melody is a sharp contrast to the lyrics, and the song seems to tie the CD together.

The polish on this CD is like wood's natural gleam rather than shiny chrome. This is thoughtful, perceptive music to play when you want to be reflective and pay attention -- and it certainly deserves all the attention you can give it.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]



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