Kate McGarrigle lost her battle with cancer on February 18, 2010, ending one of the more remarkable partnerships in contemporary music. Kate and her sister Anna were both gifted songwriters who created gentle but emotionally powerful melodies and lyrics that were witty, clever, pithy, and honest without losing their awe for life’s mysteries. But just as importantly, the McGarrigle Sisters harmonized with a rare beauty that added new colors to any song they sang; their sad songs drew an extra tear through their voices, and the jokes gained a new twist in their telling. Producer Joe Boyd was an early champion of Kate & Anna McGarrigle’s music and produced their first two albums in tandem with Greg Prestopino, and Boyd pays tribute to their early years of record making with Tell My Sister, a three-disc set that features remastered versions of 1975’s Kate & Anna McGarrigle and 1977’s Dancer with Bruised Knees, as well as a bonus disc of previously unreleased demos. Kate & Anna McGarrigle comes remarkably close to being a perfect album, and considering the limited experience the sisters had in the studio at the time, the ease and confidence of their performances is extraordinary, and Boyd and Prestopino teamed them up with a session crew capable of swinging from the heady joy of “Kiss and Say Goodbye,” the abject sorrow of “Go Leave,” and the wonder of “Jigsaw Puzzle of Life” and making it all sound rich and immediate. In the liner notes, Boyd says of Dancer with Bruised Knees, “its only problem was the album it had to follow,” and indeed, it’s a lovely record that suffers only in comparison to the triumph of the McGarrigle’s debut. Dancer was a riskier album, opening with the eccentric title tune, featuring three numbers in French and reveling in the snarkier humor of “Southern Boys” and “Walking Song.” But the craft is every bit as strong as the debut, and even if the pieces don’t fall together with the same precision, it’s a wonderful set of tunes that improves with repeated play. The set of unreleased recordings — some from a solo demo Kate recorded in 1971, others cut in pre-production for the first album — is short on major revelations, but presents spare but lovely recordings of some of the sisters’ best early songs, with their voices sounding just as inspiring with only minimal accompaniment. And there are a few treasures here, including some otherwise unrecorded songs (most notably the excellent “Saratoga Summer Song”) and versions of some tunes with alternate lyrics. The remastered albums sound excellent, and the notes by Boyd, Prestopino, and Anna McGarrigle are fine and reflect a certain awe at just how wonderful this music is. Tell My Sister is a superb tribute to the McGarrigle Sisters’ formative years, and while this was doubtless created with serious fans in mind, there are few better introductions to the magic they created than the music included here.

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