Issue #149: Dancer With Bruised Knees by Kate & Anna McGarrigle
February 15, 2019
Released On June 15, 1977
Released By Warner Bros. Records
I miss the sound of my dad’s voice. Or, maybe more accurately, I feel lost when I try to remember what his voice sounded like. He died when I was a couple of years out of college. After his funeral, with friends and family gathered in the house I grew up in — in the living room where my dad spent his last days in hospice care — my mom played back a segment he’d done on HearSay With Cathy Lewis, a public radio show produced in Norfolk. That was almost 12 years ago. I haven’t heard that recording since.
I’d like to think he speaks to me in other ways. I catch myself using words and expressions he used frequently, and in those moments, my voice echoes his. There’s also the letter my mom photocopied and sent me recently — a three-pager he wrote me when I was in middle school. I have no memory of reading it then, but reading it now is almost too much, like looking directly into the Sun. More frequent are the conversations we have via the record collection he left behind — upward of 1,000 albums. The Kingston Trio. Dave Brubeck. Miles Davis. So much classical. I think he had four versions of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. My sister and I have raided those records repeatedly over the course of the last decade, and while you’d think all the good stuff would have been extracted and absorbed into our own collections by now, the albums waiting in Norfolk seem different each time I flip through them. I know it’s because I’m a slightly different person each time I visit, but it’s fun to imagine that my dad is still making recommendations — nudging this or that record forward so I’ll notice it.
When I do bring something back to Richmond, I wonder how and why it made its way onto the built-in shelves in my parents’ living room. It’s one of the reasons I love records; each album represents a story — of hearing music, being affected by it, and deciding it deserves a place in your home. Dancer With Bruised Knees made the trip from Norfolk to Richmond a year or two ago, along with Kate & Anna McGarrigle’s self-titled debut and a small stack of other finds, though I didn’t truly dig in until this past October, when the Richmond Folk Festival inspired my father-in-law and me to go on a Canadian music binge. My wife’s dad is a Canadaphile. He knew of the McGarrigles, and he knew that Kate was the mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright. We listened to my dad’s copy of Dancer, and it stuck with me. I’d love to know why my dad enjoyed it.
Did he delight in the similarities between “Blanche comme la neige” and the liturgical music performed at Christ & St. Luke’s, the cavernous Gothic-style Episcopal church where, each Sunday, we’d hear world-class choral arrangements accompanied by a monstrous three-manual, 78-rank pipe organ? Did the minor-key seediness of “Southern Boys” remind him of Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys, and of Newman’s knack for telling sideways stories in which indictments are handed down with a smile — subtly, so the characters themselves wouldn’t know they were being lampooned if they heard the songs written about them? Did the writing in “Walking Song” remind him of Paul Simon’s? Architecture, the cold, boots, a rooming-house, the boulevards of Mexico — allusions delivered nimbly despite an ambling tempo. It all has the feel of something I would have discovered on my dad’s copy of Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Questions like these are one side of the conversation my dad and I have while I’m spinning records I retrieved from his collection. The other side is silence. But it’s a pregnant silence, full of meaning, presence, and purpose. You often hear people who aren’t religious say that they find their spirituality in music. I never realized how closely this process of asking questions without expecting an answer resembles prayer. Maybe this is how I pray. I haven’t been to that giant stone church in ages. Now that my mom has retired (OK, semi-retired) from the priesthood, I don’t expect I’ll be attending too many services in the near future. But I have my copy of Dancer With Bruised Knees. And I bet the next time I’m in Norfolk, I’ll notice another album that’s been nudged forward on the living room shelf, and I’ll keep the conversation going.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Incandescent folk music from two sisters flooded with musical talent and vision.
There are some feelings that it’s almost impossible to put into words. This has been a particularly melancholy and introspective week, and I’ve mostly been listening to things I loved when I was young, albums that helped me feel kind of okay when everything was most definitely not okay. Hoping to get back to my normal state of being when I can’t even identify a particular cause for the shift. I put on Kate & Anna McGarrigle’s Dancer With Bruised Knees one night after the kids went to bed, planning to listen as I tidied up the kitchen and got myself settled in for a little time by myself before falling asleep. I ended up standing almost completely still through the entire thing, just caught up in this feeling of nostalgia for a life I haven’t lived. It was familiar, like a childhood favourite, but not a favourite of this childhood. This is where words are failing me, because I don’t know that I can ever get across just how clearly I could see the life this other me had. Whose favourite song was “Southern Boys” whose childhood wasn’t spent entirely in alternating loneliness and fear, who learned French just so she could sing along properly with “Perrine était servante,” this little girl who grew up so happy and free. I was spellbound. And while I love my life and my family, it was so nice to spend 45 minutes catching a glimpse of the me that could/would/should have been. And to know that for her, this album feels like home.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
Being asked to write my comments on a record by the McGarrigle sisters comes with a certain level of trepidation. I am not sure I am allowed to talk about them. Listen, Off Your Radar, do you realize what I am putting at risk here? As a native Canadian, there is nothing about what my parents referred to as simply “The McGarrigles” that is off my particular radar. “The Log Driver’s Waltz” was one of the first songs I heard, “birling down and down the white waters” of the birth canal. Between 1973 and 2010, if there was a folk festival of note anywhere in the country, there’s a good chance The McGarrigles were involved. If they weren’t, someone within the Wainwright clan definitely was. Maybe I am exaggerating a little, but if nobody was directly involved then someone was definitely covering something from their catalog. There is nothing should say about any of the songs on Dancer With Bruised Knees outside of acknowledging their place in my country’s national musical canon right up there with Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You, and everything by the late Gord Downie. The fact that they’re listed as “Kate & Annie” actually came as a complete surprise to me. So please forgive me if I offer up the most trite and careful of recommendations as my countryfolk read suspiciously. The songs herein are steeped with a Canadian aesthetic that quite literally spans internal cultural lines within our provincial boarders from east to west. It brings together disparate flavours of folk music ranging from the east coast nautical to the French-Canadian melodies and even a more universal west-coast style of classic pop. Complex and beautiful, melodic and bird-like in their whimsy, Dancer with Bruised Knees will bring you one step closer to a successful immigration application. You’re welcome!
Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage
The McGarriagle sisters’ style of folk rock is innocent, pure, and approachable enough that its overall sonic character wasn’t anything jarringly unfamiliar, despite my not knowing Dancer With Bruised Knees prior to now. What was interesting to read whilst listening to the singable melodic jaunts on piano, was that Kate McGarrigle, rest her soul (deceased 2010), was married to one Loudon Wainwright III. That last name not being quite so common, I thought, “Wait, is there some connection to Rufus Wainwright?” Lo and behold, Rufus Wainwright is the child of McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III. It’s interesting to me that this tiny factoid remained a low key piece of information, as most people refer to Rufus with just his father’s last name and not that of both his parents, even though his full name includes both. Imagine how much more familiarity there would be for the McGarrigle sisters — the amount of curious carry over listeners that would want to hear the music of Rufus Wainwright’s mother and his aunt. Anyway, I digress. Dancer With Bruised Knees is nice and easy to digest when the song’s unfold, even those which are written in French. “Naufragée du tendre,” for example, works with Anna McGarrigle’s delivery of the occasionally pointed French pronunciations, resulting in emphasized downbeats or moments in the melody when a phrase might musically resolve. It makes any linguistic barrier feel less exclusive, as your ear has something non-verbal to pick up on and run with. Isn’t the power of music great like that? It’s also pleasantly interesting to hear slight note twirls, swinging syncopated rhythms, and bends of notes in songs, on parts like the guitar or even the organ. While completely befitting of a folk rock aesthetic, when combined with something like the distinctive hum of a harmonica (“Hommage à Grungie“), the result leads to thoughts of a classic blues aesthetic and goes to show how shrewdly the McGarrigle sisters revolved between neat and traditional French folk and a looser, African-American, southern vibe in their writing. Hearing regionally born styles thrive outside of their originating geographic areas is always a fun exercise in noticing global trends in writing and for a duo that performed, and thrived all the way up to Kate McGarrigle’s untimely passing, with more than a dozen studio albums across several decades under their belts, it’s fascinating that the nuanced creativity on Dancer With Bruised Knees is just the beginning of what the sisters would be inspired by for years to come.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
Though rooted in familiar folk settings, it’s the unique approach to songwriting that makes this record marvelous.
Breaking from the norm, I didn’t do any research before or during the initial listen of Dancer With Bruised Knees. I wanted to go in completely blind, just for a change of pace. By the end, I was certain the duo was from the South. Even in the face of French-language songs and a slightly northern accent of both Kate and Anna, I was convinced of it. Yeah, no… they’re from Quebec. (The polite and stately nature of the proceedings should’ve been a dead giveaway by itself.) So, armed with that knowledge, I began to wonder if “Southern Boys” was meant to be satire or was the duo playing it straight? After a half dozen listens, I still wasn’t sure. To be clear, I don’t think either one makes the song more enjoyable than the other, nor does it speak to the song’s quality. I am simply not entirely certain which it is. And I believe the reason why I can’t decide is because of the lines, “Their breath in your ear is as soft as the cotton / Whether they’re wooing or whispering the latest racist joke.” You see, there are two things going on here. First, there’s an implicit generalization of racist tendencies in the South. OK, fine. It wasn’t the first time we heard it as a people in 1977, and I don’t imagine that’ll change anytime soon. (Also: How timely!) And second, while the delivery doesn’t outright condone it, it doesn’t exactly condemn it either. Instead, the delivery suggests it as a statement of fact, and there’s more than a hint of attraction as well. So we’re back to whether or not this is satire. Even after writing this as a means to work through my confusion, I’m still not sure. Short of asking Anna — because I can’t ask Kate — I don’t know that I’ll ever fully be certain one way or the other. But I will remain fascinated by it for a long time to come.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
Softly furred with maroon velvet, trimmed in gold braid, I couldn’t stop myself. Running my index finger back and forth along its grain, I ignored the slitted glare from my father, helpless against that softness. In the home of an old friend, maybe, or old business associate, I wasn’t sure, just that this was someone from my father’s heavily shrouded past, the one he kept from us to this very day, and as such I knew I should be on my best manners. The wife, noticing my helplessness, creased her papery, round cheeks into a smile and insisted I walk away with it. The heart-shaped box that had once held chocolates became a hiding place for my prized possessions, which always held a faint aroma of the sweets thereafter. Dancer With Bruised Knees similarly holds delightful music in an unassuming package. Laced with a drama and rawness of emotion, Kate and Anna McGarrigle open up no matter the subject, ranging all over their lives to offer a parcel of songs that are at time bouncy, wistful, melodramatic, and sad. Welcome are the musical elements of the occasional pan flute, fiddle, and harmonica that bring me both south and to France. In the same way the lack of poise from the dancer on the cover doesn’t negate her elegance, doesn’t take away from her appeal, neither does the lack of cohesion negate the charm of this album.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Though one-half has passed, their daring musical spirit lives, with this record standing particularly tall amongst their rich discography.
I don’t know exactly why, but I’m a big fan of Carole King. Sure, I can rationalize that “good music is good music,” but it’s difficult for me to be specific about it. I think it’s her bravery that I admire most. She’s unafraid to try new things, incorporate unorthodox styles and techniques, and that ultimately keeps us guessing. I felt a strange comfort while listening to Dancer With Bruised Knees. It took me a few tracks to realize it, but I felt so at home because this album plays very much like my favorite Carole King records (my favorite of which is probably Fantasy, by the way). Obviously the vocal stylings are vastly different. What I’m referring to is something buried in the aesthetics of the record as a whole. The opening tracks “Dancer With Bruised Knees,” “Southern Boys,” and “No Biscuit Blues” all give me the feeling of being in an old-timey saloon — like some old cowboy is going to accost me for my “Nee-Kay” sneakers a la Back To The Future III. And then there are the French tracks, which put me into soundtrack mode at the drop of a hat. I think I’ve mentioned this before on OYR, but foreign language tracks always make me visualize what’s going on to compensate for the sensory deprivation of not being able to understand the lyrics — it’s very cinematic. And that, I think, is a perfect way to sum up this record: it’s a completely cohesive effort that actually plays like a score. Kate & Anna take us to different places, and perhaps times, by constantly changing the musical scenery through their imaginative compositions.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
It really doesn’t matter what you, I, or your best friend’s opinionated uncle thinks about this record. The sheer fact of its existence — and that of its more assured predecessor, the self-titled debut — is a window into a different time. A time when a duo of quirky singer/songwriters from Canada could trampoline off of the success of one song — “Heart Like A Wheel” — when it gets covered by a singer — Linda Ronstadt — well on her way to global superstardom. That was enough to propel these ladies into a major label deal with Warner Brothers, who then lavished them with studio time attended upon by Joe Boyd and some of the greatest musicians alive — Steve Gadd, Grady Tate, and Dave Mattacks all laid down drum tracks here — and let them do whatever they want to do. What they wanted to do was put humor, French-Canadian folk, Randy Newman-esque social commentary, New Orleans pastiche, and art songs together on an album, not exactly aiming for the Billboard 100. And it didn’t land there, although the magazine did include it as one of the pop albums on a list called “Billboard’s Recommended LPs” in March, 1977. Just another fact that makes Dancer With Bruised Knees a window into another time, not necessarily a better or worse time, just very different. And listening to it has given me a new opportunity to contemplate in just how many ways time and tide has traveled since then.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Being a fan(atic) of The Roches, I can’t help but notice similarities between their idiosyncratic approach to songwriting and the McGarrigle sister’s own peculiar spin. (I am aware of the Loudon Wainwright connection between the two acts, but that was definitely not a thought that ever popped up in my head while listening to this sprawling sonic treasure.) Pair this record with The Roches’ best — their self-titled 1979 record that we covered back in Issue #51 — and you might reach a different conclusions. Matched up together, you’ll notice that the differences outnumber the similarities. Where The Roches rely on fluffy wit bolstered by glorious harmonies, the McGarrigle sisters excel on the sheer density of their work with a multi-lingual reach and compositions that feature errant melodic thoughts and layered brilliance. Neither is inherently better than the other — each offer their own musical quirks differently, and it’s up to the listener to find their own common ground in the writing. And that’s where the appeal of this savvy record came into full view. The Roches speak my own language… that is my musical language. They have wit, they have harmony, and they have resonance, all of which compels me to keep listening day in and day out. The McGarrigle’s speak a different language for sure, but as I listen more and more, training my ear to learn their own language, I can’t help but feel they are saying the same things with different words. Harmony is there, it’s just not in the voices like The Roches, rather in the words, poetic and smooth like the idyllic early relationship ode of “Walking Song,” which reads like a companion piece to the classic Big Star track “Thirteen.” Wit is found then within the songwriting structures — where The Roches take a straight-forward approach and inflate it, the McGarrigle’s seem to contort and twist it to keep the listener guessing, even if their own lyrical approach is as straight-forward as any folk fan could hope for. And then the resonance — well, that’s one thing they both nail the same way. Lighthearted messages are given air by their use of the studio space (“No Biscuit Blues“), but they are beyond capable of switching to more weighty material like the late album track (“Kitty Come Home“), with a choral vocal arrangement that brings me back around to The Roches. I never much mastered learning a foreign language — probably my fault for taking Latin in middle and high school — but that doesn’t seem to matter much here. The McGarrigle’s offer up music with a robust core of musicality and passion and songwriting full of that will always translate easily into any language you speak.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Mother Earth’s Plantasia by Mort Garson
Chosen By Guest Contributor Laura Stevenson