LOOK AT THE cover of this album. Two slightly out of focus ethereal looking women (or are they nymphs?) with big, liquid eyes, and fluffy angel hair peer out. They come straight off those cards from the Coop that show young girls in white gauzy dresses, strolling on the beach, holding white conch shells to their ears. Your grandmother would love a photo of you just like this one.
But are these the same McGarrigle sisters that we know and love? Are these the same sisters who come from the backwoods of Canada, who once gave a sarcastic interview to Seventeen Magazine that made it obvious they just like to sing and really don't care about the music business at all? What happened?
Nothing did. The sisters appear once again, after over a year's absence from the recording studio. And the back cover demonstrates that they haven't changed their mood very much. Sporting devil's golden horns, they flaunt funny faces at the would-be purchaser. The earthly, self-amused, un-Los Angeles character that graces their other albums, Dancer with Bruised Knees, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle,once again graces Pronto Monto. It's too bad, though, that too many songs have shifted their subject matter into obscurity. Still this combo-country, cabaret, lejazzhot, album has enough winners to carry you on by the few boring numbers.
There might even be an FM hit on this album. "Oh My Heart" is the rememberable kind of tune that is very easy to hum. The only thing that could stop this song from reaching the charts would be Anna McGarrigle's voice, which is the high vibrato that elementary school music teachers and maiden aunts usually have. Luckily, Kate, who has a lower, richer voice, sings lead vocals in most numbers. In fact, she easily outdoes Linda Ronstadt in "Just Another Broken Heart," a real you've-gone-and-broke-my-heard-and-I-just-can't-live-without-you song. Suprisingly, Kate, who wrote Ronstadt's big hit, "Heart Like a Wheel," didn't write this one; David Nitchern did. And as well composed and well-arranged as this song is (the concluding strings are striking), it just isn't McGarrigle. These girls have a sense of humor.
ABOUT fifteen years ago, when high school bekoned Kate and Anna, the two sisters left Northern Canada for Montreal because their hometown had no schools. (It barely had people.) In any case, Kate told Seventeen Magazine that they went to school in the city for about a month before they concluded that they would rather sing in bars than study all day. But somewhere down the line one of them learned basic chemistry, and they exploit their rather finite knowledge in a love song called "NACL" about two sympathetic characters, an atom of chlorine ("valence minus one"), and "handsome sodium." This is the kind of song that makes you wonder what there is to think about all day in the backwoods of Canada. This off the wall song, which basically tells of the romantic side to the chemical bond that makes salt, in a gentle-twangy country melody, is probably pointless, but it showcases the sisters' dry humor. Lyrics like
Sodium cried, "What a gas, be my bride And I'll change your name from chlorine to chloride"
conjured up the image of two atoms driving off into the sunset, aluminum cans dragging behind their bumper, "Just Married" written in shaving cream on the back of their Studebaker. For just a second, taking anything with a grain of salt ever again seems like forcing a divorce on a happy couple.
The other surrealistic song on the album, "Side of Fries," is just as strange as "NACL," but not as funny. The idea of a well-dressed hotdog amidst a panoply of random images doesn't hold together well enough to give the song a central idea, but listening to "Side of Fries" is akin to reading James Joyce without the notes.
THERE ARE plenty of straight-forward songs on Pronto Monto,be not mistaken. Anna wrote a real-live hate song called "Dead Weight" that comes right down the line and announces, "I won't tolerate you, you're bugging me and my friends." Probably everyone has someone they'd like to send this song to. Unfortunately, the number tries to pull off the kind of nastiness that only Bob Dylan can get away with smiling.
At the other end of the spectrum, the chorus of "Come Back Baby" goes like this:
Won't you come back now
Won't you come back, baby
Won't you come back now
Won't you come back now
but surprisingly the song isn't that dull. It's even refreshing to hear a love song presented with so little saccharine in the vocals. Granted, Kate sings the words "You're my earth and heaven" with as much conviction as if she were singing "You're my dentist and toothbrush." But the tune is nice.
The tune is more than nice in the song "Pronto Monto," the title song of the album. The song is in French, very clear schoolbook French, with an English translation generously supplied on the sleeve. Along with the haunting words ("Such sad dreams/Troubling my sleep with that howl/Farewells must be but au revoirs"), and a charming french cabaret flavor, "Pronto Monto" is all variety. There's a brief transition to disco at the end of the song, French disco, and mysterious strains of mandolin, violin and horn floating in and out of the music. "Pronto Monto" embodies everything good about the McGarrigle sisters, especially because the words briefly recall the sister-conscious character of their old greats.
It seems too that Kate and Anna have rediscovered their families; they are not as concerned with each other now. They'll do songs like Anna's "Bundle of Sorrow, Bundle of Joy" which celebrates her family with lines like "I love my kid, I love my kid. "Their best songs from their previous albums were about each other, about really loving your sister. "Tell My Sister," and "Kitty Come Home" had sensitive lyrics that stayed miles away from sappiness. Disappointingly, Pronto Monto has not one sister song, but then again, not everyone has a sister.
The album finds its strength in its diversity: tempo and mood change greatly from song to song--and yet, as exciting as this is, it also presents a problem. When can you play Pronto Monto? There's Cat Stevens for those mellow, I-might-be-depressed-soon times, and there's the Stones and Geils for the other times, but Pronto Monto falls somewhere in the middle. You have to listen to this album, because the emotional and musical jumps reach out and grab your attention. A year older, Kate and Anna talk of new loves, but their music moves just the same.