Peauxdunque Album Highlight
In this recurring feature, Emily Choate considers the life of an album that’s gone overlooked.
Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s Pronto Monto
By Emily Choate, Peauxdunque Review Fiction Editor/Music Editor
In the late 1990s, The McGarrigle Hour was passed eagerly among my circle of arts and humanities friends in college. Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s eclectic album boasted Cole Porter and Stephen Foster standards, deep cuts from the 1960s folk movement, and a fistful of spiky, wondrous original songs. To make this album, they’d assembled all their favorite longtime collaborators: prodigiously talented family members, world-famous peers, and one notorious ex-husband.
During that last gasp of pre-Google existence, we tried to piece together the links between these artists, anticipating the stacks of related albums we’d soon hunt down. Rufus Wainwright—the eponymous debut album by Kate McGarrigle’s son—had just been released at the time, but Rufus’s McGarrigle Hour original, “Heartburn,” burst through first, at least among our crowd, making us loyal fans before we got our hands on his first album. Same went for Kate’s daughter Martha Wainwright, whose ethereal yet biting “Year of the Dragon” hinted at the lush, layered, and assuredly performed body of work to come. But we would have to wait longer for Martha—a fate not so unusual in the annals of agonizing music label sagas. Her own eponymous debut in 2005 would prove well worth the wait. But in the meantime, her stunning, versatile voice blazed its way through track after track of her family’s recordings.
From the beginning, Kate and Anna had a talent for gathering around them clutches of like-minded rebel hearts. To become a fan of the McGarrigles is to set off on a hunt for seemingly endless points of collaborative convergence, overlap, and influence. We couldn’t help but try to identify within their songs the lyrical nods of thanks—or pointed barbs.
Poring over liner notes, we searched for which songs contained which family members, who wrote what, who was making reference to whom. What, exactly, were we hunting? If it was the lore of an appealingly dramatic bohemian musical dynasty, then there was plenty to find with Kate and Anna. If it was a list of albums to run out and buy next, then we’d find that, too—for years to come.
The lure of the atmosphere created by Kate and Anna’s ragamuffin, vagabond crowd was irresistible. A shambolic quality of the work conveys something that’s borne out in the history of the artists themselves and in the family lives they then created. That particular folk-inflected sound evokes front parlors—not from sentimentality but from the sense that these moments of intimate performance captured for our listening are in fact everyday occurrences. Kate and Anna played and sang with their family throughout their eccentric Quebec upbringing, exploring every musical tradition and instrument that they encountered. By the time they recorded their early records in the 1970s, they had decades of familial harmonizing at their backs.
Those harmonies sparkled at their brightest when supporting the sisters’ unmistakable style of original songwriting. Midway through The McGarrigle Hour gleamed a particularly beguiling original, written by Kate, called “Na Cl.” Propelled by a dreamy swing, this song transforms the chemical process that creates table salt into a saucy, lovestruck affair between two atoms, chlorine and sodium. First comes the longing: “Somewhere in this deep blue sea / there’s a negative / For my extra energy / Yes, somewhere in this foam my positive will find a home.” Then Kate manages to shape a sexy romance, leading toward their inevitable act of love—“It’s fun to ionize.” The song’s tin pan alley humor resists the expected at every step, including its final line: “Think of the love that you eat when you salt your meat!”
“Na Cl” first appeared on the McGarrigles’ third album, Pronto Monto—a project that music writer and broadcaster Mark Leviton classified as the “least-heard” album that Kate and Anna ever made. Initially released in 1978, Pronto Monto didn’t sell, languishing out of print for many years afterward. Finally, the album was reissued by Omnivore in 2016 with a detailed account of its origins and legacy, providing a previously missing link in the McGarrigles’ fascinating, inimitable body of work.
When the McGarrigles came to make their third album for Warner Bros., they had worked with highly respected producer Joe Boyd to create their first two masterful records—1975’s Kate and Anna McGarrigle and 1977’s follow-up, Dancer with Bruised Knees (my favorite McGarrigles record). These albums established their clout with music critics, folk-loving audiences, and peers (like Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Elvis Costello) eager to cover their songs.
“Yet Kate and Anna resisted being filed under folk, and they were right,” Boyd wrote for the release of Tell My Sister, a vital compilation of those first two McGarrigles albums and early demos. “They might not have been pop stars, but they occupy an uncharted landscape on the border between Cole Porter, Quebecois traditions, Stephen Foster, and the innocent early years of the folk revival. Wherever you locate it, the heart of North American song isn’t far.”
The release of Pronto Monto was intended to pull the McGarrigles closer to the mainstream than they had previously sounded. Despite critical acclaim, widespread album sales had eluded them. So it’s not surprising that Warner Bros. saw this third album as a chance to rebrand this folky sister act prone to singing French ballads and Blues standards. This was the late seventies, and the winds of popular sound had shifted. Therefore, some of the album’s production choices—a certain glossy sheen—reflect this mainstreaming effort, led by producer David Nichtern.
But even the album art hints at the limits that a mainstream makeover could ever have on the irrepressible spirit of eccentricity fueling Kate and Anna’s music. The cover image shows a glamorous close-up of the two women: unsmiling, dressed in white, their faces sharply backlit against black background yet swimmy (almost blurry), thanks to ultra-soft focus. On the back cover, they appear in the same basic frame and style, but they’re wearing chunky fake gold crowns and mugging goofy faces for the camera. They’re like bored, mischievous schoolkids on Picture Day. In short, any McGarrigles fan who’s paying attention can tell that the irreverent core of their work is under no threat of mainstream-music homogenization.
A roguish spirit is always at work in their sound. Infused with a sly quality, it winks and dodges and flourishes. They prized the eccentric, the arcane, the theatrical. In their songs, those qualities live alongside moments of quiet sincerity that communicate genuine pathos and heartbreak. This breadth of tone opens up a space that includes straightforward love songs, whimsical experiments, or traditional folk influences—all without losing their trademark edge of knowing wit and irony, which keeps the whole enterprise from tipping over into sentimentality.
In other words, it’s pretty damn French. The McGarrigles always included French lyrics in their albums, at times adapting traditional songs and at other times incorporating French into their original works. Their next album after Pronto Monto would be the aptly-titled (and superb) French Record in 1987, comprised entirely of French songs. (Thirty years later, Kate’s daughter Martha—a powerhouse torch singer—would release a deeply felt and smartly executed all-French album of Edith Piaf songs.)
That French influence runs strongest in the album’s title track. “Pronto Monto”—which is a corrupted version of French phrase for ‘take your coat’”—unfolds as an image-laden and idea-driven reflection on what it means to dwell on memories of the past. “Tie your shoes, collect your coat, your woes, and discontent / Walk slow into the morning asleep / The hour has come, grey and quite alone / You’re fading with the mist, haunted, an afterthought.” Written by Kate & Anna and longtime collaborator Phillippe Tatartcheff, “Pronto Monto” defines something crucial about the emotional and sonic range represented on the album.
The women who inhabit Pronto Monto’s songs aren’t experiencing their first forays into the world. They are coming into newer, more mature versions of themselves, and the title song’s perspective reflects that complexity—delivered with up-tempo energy, rather than a dirge. “But listen, I hope that you may find / A quiet place to rest,” the song cautions those who tend to lose themselves in brooding reverie. “And maybe there forego the plaudits of the crows / And maybe there forego the bitterness of your roots.”
Pronto Monto’s love songs also illuminate the growing pains associated with moving beyond the role of the young ingenue. A trio of love songs—“Oh My Heart,” “Just Another Broken Heart,” and “Come Back Baby”—are all, in some respects, traditional. But each one has an edge of regret, of wry self-knowledge. Each woman in these songs is a clear-eyed grownup singing about her hopes and losses.
“Oh My Heart” provides the album’s breezy opening track. Written by Anna and her husband Dane Lanken, this piano-driven song makes a playful yet self-aware vow to keep loving despite life’s obstacles and the limits of human fallibility: “Let us stay together / Oh my heart / Together but not tethered, or not too much.” “Just Another Broken Heart,” written by producer David Nichtern, also recognizes the limits of a love affair, but this time, it’s sung from the bittersweet ending, not the hopeful outset. Here, we feel the smoldering sting of a furtive affair: “We mustn’t let our feelings show / Tomorrow she’ll return / So put out the fire and let the embers burn.”
“Come Back Baby,” by Kate, inevitably evokes thoughts of her notorious, doomed marriage to singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. Never concealing the fallout from multiple failed reunions with Wainwright, Kate wrote with notable openness about longing for “somebody I love I know I ought to hate.” But alongside Rufus and Martha, their fraught union also produced many musical offspring, and years later, Wainwright would eventually appear on The McGarrigle Hour. So when Kate sings, “Somebody I know’s gone away / But I wish he hadn’t left me here to stay / Sittin’ here singin’ a song,” it’s tough not to be grateful for the world’s innumerable songs of heartbreak, even if they were written at the feet of a brutal muse.
The brilliant “Na Cl” and its sillier, little sister track, “Side of Fries,” lean hard on the McGarrigles’ gift for mischievous whimsy. The album also includes a playful, high-spirited cover of “Tryin’ to Get to You,” made famous by Elvis Presley, but first recorded by D.C.-based R&B group The Eagles (not those Eagles). But a later track, “Dead Weight,” possesses a far subtler, leaner edge of humor, giving Anna a particular opportunity to sparkle. Cheerfully recounting the reasons that one serious dud of a boyfriend must clear out, Anna delivers the final verdict with wicked delight: “You’re a dead weight / And I can’t wait / To see the back of you.”
Arguably the most powerful track on the album, “Stella by Artois” sets an intimate scene. A travelogue, the song recalls piquant memories of a birthday spent on tour: “In Rotterdam, ’77 / I had a birthday / We were on the road to nowhere / Lookin’ for somewhere to make it a night.” Written and sung by Kate, “Stella by Artois” conveys the poignancy of time passing and how small details illuminate memories of a nomadic life spent amid artists. Addressing a lover who shares in that night’s quiet celebration, Kate asks for the slowing of time and savoring of small pleasures: “So light the candle one more time / For tomorrow I’ll be goin’ and I’ve grown used to the light / Night after night, the same flame glowin’ / Won’t you light it just one more time.”
“Bundle of Sorrow, Bundle of Joy” and “Fixture in the Park” are both especially memorable songs by Anna. Marked by atmospheric scene-setting and rich sensory detail, both songs offer a deeply complex depiction of a grown woman’s perspective on her own life, her own past, and her own choices, portraying a strong sense of self-possession.
“Bundle of Sorrow, Bundle of Joy” unfolds in abundant scenic details of a windswept autumn day. Anna sings: “I jam a log onto the stove and hasten to shut the door / In the room upstairs sleeps a baby boy who wasn’t there before.” Parenthood—an oddly underrepresented subject in modern popular songwriting—takes the foreground of the song. Surrounding the arrival of her son with lush atmospheric details, she sets the worries of family (“Once there were just two of us, now there’s another mouth to feed / And when he’s taken from the breast, can we meet his every need?”) against a wealth of nourishing love.
“Fixture in the Park” powerfully relates the experience of reminiscing about childhood, being transported back into the sensory world of the distant past by sitting in a familiar park. “It was here that I came to my young world.” The song’s repeated refrain, “What bliss, what sweet ruin,” cuts especially deep after Kate McGarrigle’s death from cancer in 2010.
In the years since then, Kate’s family members have memorialized her work and life through live shows, memoirs, and cover albums. But back in 1978, “Fixture” seems to find Anna extending her sister a gorgeous, prescient blessing: “These memories are fixed in time, though faintly gossamer / I hope that yours will be like mine / And stay with you all your years / To take you back to when you were a girl / Your first rendezvous in a younger world.”
“Cover Up My Head” closes out the album on a final note of reflection about time passing and the world changing. “The night is cold now / The world is old now / I guess I’ll go to bed now / Cover up my head.” Written by Galt MacDermot and William Dumaresq (famous for the musical Hair), with Kate on lead vocal while soft marimbas roll in and out, “Cover Up My Head” strikes a warmer, more hopeful tone than its lyrics suggest. “Maybe I’ll dream of the time / When the world and love were young / Maybe I’ll dream of the time / Before I heard your swan song sung / I’m all alone now / I’m on my own now.” Somehow, the companionable sway of Kate and Anna’s voices lets the darkness of its message melt into a soothing dream.
At every turn, the sweetness in the McGarrigles’ warble is undercut by the candor with which they conjure scenes of real compromise in romantic love, the advent of parenthood, the passage of time, and the sacrifices demanded by an itinerant artist’s life. Pronto Monto is an overlooked gem in Kate and Anna’s discography. Offering nuanced, idiosyncratic takes on the interior worlds of women who have entered new and complex seasons of their lives, it provides a memorable glimpse into this hinge-point in Kate and Anna’s lives and their musical legacy.
Emily Choate’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Shenandoah, The Florida Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Chapter 16, Late Night Library, Yemassee, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and has earned several residency awards, most recently from Virginia Center for Creative Arts and The Hambidge Center. She lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.