It’s not often that bonus material provides the ideal intro to an artist’s oeuvre, but the last third of Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s Tell My Sister, comprised of demos recorded before their self-titled 1975 debut, is in some ways stronger and more approachable than the albums that followed. Tell My Sister‘s first two thirds comprise the self-titled album (Tracks 1-12) and its 1977 sequel, Dancer With Bruised Knees (Tracks 13-24), both lush, fragile neo-folk bristling with instrumental flourishes and elaborate harmonies, but it’s possible to be overwhelmed at first by rococo touches like the frilly call-and-response vocals on “Kiss and Say Goodbye,” or the metaphoric strain of “Jigsaw Puzzle of Life.”
The demos are sparse only by comparison; they sound like fully fleshed-out, if less elaborately-orchestrated, recordings. The simpler versions, on which the McGarrigles accompany themselves on piano and banjo, push Kate’s quavering voice to the front, so that its vulnerabilities are inescapable. The spurned lover of “Heart Like a Wheel,” who welcomes death as a respite from loneliness, sounds as if she might vanish beneath the weight of her own grief. “Saratoga Summer Song,” which remained virtually unknown until Teddy Thompson performed it at a tribute to Kate in 2010, shortly after she died of clear-cell sarcoma, begins as a bittersweet reminiscence of summer break before running off the rails: “Bring back the beer, bring back the dope and the rope.”
Like her ex-husband, Loudon Wainwright III, Kate McGarrigle intermingled third-person narratives and confessional observations so deftly it’s impossible to sort out one from the other, but now that death has ended the sisters’ partnership, legend and autobiography are one and the same.