Kate and Anna McGarrigle never became major stars but I get the impression that they never really wanted to. They record music for fun and if they can make money out of it - well - that's a bonus. At least, that's how it seems to me. They were born in the 1940's in the Montreal area of Canada, so they were raised on a mixture of musical styles including French and English traditional folk music. Another sister, Jane, sang with them for a while when they were starting out.
Kate and Anna first came to public attention as songwriters in the early seventies after Linda Ronstadt (Heart like a wheel) and Maria Muldaur (The work song) each recorded one of their songs. Although Kate and Anna recorded their first album in the mid-seventies, this is (I think) only their eighth album to date. So Kate and Anna are not exactly prolific, but they enjoy what they do and never compromise on quality or style.
This album finds the duo singing Christmas songs with family and friends. Kate was married for a while to Loudon Wainwright III (the folk singer and satirist whose album, Social Studies, I reviewed a long time ago) and their marriage produced Rufus and Martha Wainwright. Lily and Dane Lanken, Emmylou Harris and Chaim Tannenbaum are among the other guests who have long-standing connections to Kate and Anna, either as relations or simply as friends. Now I can't help thinking that they missed a trick with this album - surely the majority of the singers (without Chaim) should have recorded O Tannenbaum and dedicated it to Chaim? Never mind, the music here is brilliant anyway.
Kate and Anna are happy to play comparatively minor roles for much of the album. You have to wait until track 11 (Wise men) to hear Kate sing lead vocal for the only time with Anna's only lead vocal coming on track 12 (Port starboard sox) although both join in the singing on most of the other tracks.
The album mostly avoids the well-known chestnuts. Emmylou sings lead on O little town of Bethlehem (a song that she originally recorded for her own Christmas album, Light of the stable) and proves that she is still in great voice, although the intervening years have changed her voice slightly. What are you doing New Year's eve (sung by Rufus), God rest ye merry gentlemen (sung as a choir without a credited lead singer) and Blue Christmas (sung by Chaim) are the only other famous songs here. Some children see him (sung by Rufus and Martha) and Rebel Jesus (a Jackson Browne track sung by Lily and Martha) will also be familiar to some people. The remaining songs are either traditional songs that I've not heard before or they are originals written by one or more of the singers participating on the album.
While this album is rooted in folk music, its appeal goes far beyond folk music. Indeed, I found this album on display in the window of a record store that I don't normally bother browsing in because other stores have (supposedly) more to offer somebody with my musical tastes. Yes, the variety of voices provided by Kate and Anna, their family and friends ensure that this is an album with something for everybody, which will work well as background music but which sounds even better if you give it dedicated attention.