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McGarrigles weave mature themes into thoughtful lyrics


There are some things that never to turn up in pop songs, no matter how commonplace they might seem in real life. Leftovers, for instance; when was the last time you heard anybody in the Top 40 singing about the reheated meals most of us eat every week?

But leftovers and the life that comes with them are at the heart of Kate and Anna McGarrigle's "I Eat Dinner." In it, a woman sits with her 13-year-old daughter at the kitchen table, eating "leftovers with mashed potatoes," when she realizes how everyday living has snatched away that which was special about dinner:

No more candlelight

No more romance

No more small talk

When the hunger stops.

It's a moment almost any adult can empathize with, and the straightforward sweetness of the McGarrigles' melody and arrangement make it seem all the more resonant. Hearing it, you may find yourself thinking that this is what hits would be like if grown-ups controlled the Top 40.

Unless you're already a fan, however, odds are you haven't heard "I Eat Dinner" -- or anything else the McGarrigles have recorded. Indeed, only two of the McGarrigles half-dozen albums remain in print, including the current "Heartbeats Accelerating" (where you'll find "I Eat Dinner"); beyond that, you'll have to make due with their occasional concerts, like tonight's show at Max's on Broadway.

It's not as if the McGarrigles have been without their share of success. Their ability to match emotional immediacy with memorable, folk-tinged melodies earned them a wide following among the singer/songwriters of the '70s, and songs like Anna's "Heart Like a Wheel" or Kate's "(Talk to Me of) Mendocino" did as much to get Linda Ronstadt's career rolling as anything penned by Jackson Browne or J. D. Souther.

But as the McGarrigles matured, mass-market pop seemed to move in the opposite direction. Turn on the radio today, and much of what tumbles out of the speakers suggests a culture with the emotional life of love-struck 14-year-olds. From TLC's "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg" to Bryan Adams' "Thought I'd Died and Gone to Heaven," most of today's hits have little concept of romance beyond breathless infatuation and hormonal heat.

Compare that with the title track from the McGarrigles' "Heartbeats Accelerating." Sure, there's passion there among the murmured vocals and Acadian fiddles, but it's a far more knowing kind of excitement, full of hopeful anticipation and anxious palpitations. Likewise, the images cataloged in "Love Is" tend not toward sweetness and frivolity, but deeper, more complicated things: "A steel guitar." "A battle scar. "A morning star."

In a way, the difference between the McGarrigles' music and that of most pop acts today is kind of like the difference between family life as described by Lynn Johnston's comic "For Better or for Worse," and the way it's depicted in "Blondie" or "Hi and Lois."

Johnston's strip may accept the conventions of the funny pages, but there's nothing cartoony about the way her characters are drawn; they change shape, get older and grow up, just like real people. Moreover, Johnston (like the McGarrigles) isn't afraid to look how the way we feel about our spouses, our parents, our children and even ourselves changes with time, and the greatest strength of her work is the way she finds both humor and truth in things we all experience.

Kate and Anna McGarrigle work a similar magic with their music, animating the everyday through a simple tune and a few well-chosen words. And if that's not good enough for the folks at Top 40, well . . . whose loss is that?

The McGarrigles

When: May 6, 8 p.m.

Where: Max's on Broadway, 735 S. Broadway.

Tickets: $14.50.

Call: (410) 675-6297.

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