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Interior Sketches : McGarrigle Sisters Are Still at Home in the Parlor

February 14, 1991|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Before video could kill the radio star, audio had to kill the parlor piano player, not to mention the front-porch fiddler.

Canadian sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle have been one of the few pop acts who can take a listener back to the days when music was something that friends and family made for themselves at home instead of plucking it out of a record bin. The simple acoustic settings and reedy, sentimental ballad singing on some McGarrigle tracks evoke the days of Stephen Foster.

Now, after a seven-year lapse between records, the McGarrigles are back in a more contemporary musical setting. Their new album, "Heartbeats Accelerating," employs some of the atmospheric production touches and rhythmic embellishments heard on albums by Peter Gabriel and Suzanne Vega. But in bringing their recording technology up to date, the McGarrigles haven't forgotten that eloquent, intimate songs are still as necessary today as they were in the era of parlor concerts.

The McGarrigles, both in their mid-40s, started out on the Montreal folk scene in the mid-1960s. Linda Ronstadt brought them to the pop world's attention in 1974 when she recorded younger sister Anna's ballad "Heart Like a Wheel" (it was the title song of the album that secured Ronstadt's stardom). From 1976 to 1983, the McGarrigles released five albums, including a collection of folk tunes sung in French. The sisters became critics' favorites, but their popular appeal was limited--in part because they seldom toured and in part because, with some exceptions, their sound clung to rustic roots at odds with pop convention.

"Heartbeats Accelerating," released last fall on the independent Private Music label, attempts to follow some of the new, commercially accepted folk conventions established by Vega. It is an overridingly dark and ghostly album with little or no room for the wry humor and the occasional robust blues found on the duo's past albums.

Those qualities aren't missed, though: The album's interior sketches of taut psychological moments, suppressed or unfulfilled sexual needs and cracking relationships make for a memorable, unified cycle of songs. While technology enters the picture, acoustic instruments--accordion, piano and fiddle, remain the foundation of the McGarrigle sound, along with the duo's trademark close harmonies. There's nothing on "Heartbeats Accelerating" that couldn't be sung in a parlor, after all. But the loneliness and chill in the songs might make that parlor audience want to throw an extra log or two on the hearth.

Who: Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

When: Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 8 p.m.

Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

Whereabouts: Interstate 5 to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Center.

Wherewithal: $17.50.

Where to call: (714) 496-8930.

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