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Electronics Bring Sisters' Dark Side to Light : Pop music: The McGarrigles' first album in seven years is not a tome to mid-life crises--it just sounds that way.

February 19, 1991|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A small wave of concern sets in among some of Kate and Anna McGarrigle's friends when they hear the song "I Eat Dinner," a key number on the sisters' new album "Heartbeats Accelerating."

It had been seven years since the Canadian folk-pop sisters' last album, and here was Kate dolefully describing a dreary, mid-life routine of eating "leftovers with mashed potatoes" with her 13-year-old daughter at the kitchen table, feeling that her best years have passed her by:

No more candlelight

No more romance

No more smalltalk

When the hunger's gone.

Seemingly confirming the fears, the album also includes "I'm Losing You," a touching song-letter from Kate to a son who has moved away from home.

"Anna has friends sending her letters saying, 'I hope Kate's OK,' " Kate said, calling from her Montreal home, with her sister also on the line.

The friends can rest easy. The McGarrigles are just fine.

"My son did go away to school and grow six inches while my back was turned," said Kate, who will team with her sister in shows tonight at the Roxy and Wednesday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.

"But 'I Eat Dinner' I took from a book on (Mexican artist) Frida Kahlo," she continued. "There's a scene where she's between husbands and wrote a letter about how she for the first time was eating dinner by herself. The idea came from that and I elaborated. I do eat dinner with my 13-year-old, but we eat in front of the TV. I never felt as isolated as the song seems."

But the image of the sisters leading sadly romantic lives, writing songs of lost loves and missed opportunities, is not difficult to conjure while listening to the McGarrigles' melancholy, folk-pop canon. The fact that there was a seven-year gap between their last two albums only heightens the picture of a stoic life in rural solitude.

"You mean like the Brontes?" said Kate, making an apt reference to sisters Emily and Charlotte Bronte--the 19th-Century English authors who surmounted impoverished childhoods to pen the sad, romantic classics "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights," respectively.

The McGarrigles' lives have not been quite so dramatic. Anna, 46, and Kate, 45, were born in the rather idyllic rural town of St. Sauveur in Quebec, about 40 miles north of Montreal. Raised in a musical household (another sister Jane, now their manager, played organ in a local church), they began writing songs separately in the late '60s.

Kate soon moved to New York (for a time she was married to singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III) and both sisters continued musical pursuits, with notice coming their way via Anna's composition "Heart Like a Wheel," the title song of Linda Ronstadt's breakthrough 1974 album. After Kate moved back to Montreal in 1976, the pair began an acclaimed but sporadic recording career, yielding five albums of bittersweet, literate songs. During the seven-year break before the sixth album--a result, they say without any bitterness, of simply not having a record deal--they tried their hands at writing soundtracks for a couple of short films.

They attribute the intensified darkness of the new album not to mid-life crises, but to producer Pierre Marchand, who set the sisters' sometimes jaunty, acoustic folk-pop on a haunting bed of atmospheric electronics.

"He's kind of a dark person himself, and we worked in his studio, which is this tiny flat over his father's ice cream parlor," Kate said. "And he painted it black, so it was very womb-like. We tend to balance the heaviness with lightness, instrumentally or with a few lines here and there. But this time we didn't do that."

So those concerned about Kate's state can take heart.

"In fact, I'm more isolated," said Anna. "I live way out of town, far away with my husband and kids, and I have no friends. . . ."

She gave a mock sob to show she was kidding, but it wasn't enough to stop her younger sister from chiding her about her living conditions.

"I get angry with Anna because I try to call her and can't get through," she said with mild exasperation. "I said, 'Why don't you get an answering machine?' but she said, 'No, no!' But last week it was her daughter's birthday, so I gave her a machine."

Interjected Anna: "But we're so stupid we can't get it to work."

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