The Wainwright SistersThe Wainwright Sisters
Album: Songs In The Dark
Label: Maple Music
Tracks: 16

Was it not perhaps inevitable that one day Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche, as step-siblings sharing both the same father (Loudon Wainwright III) and a considerable amount of musical DNA, would get together to record an album? Songs In The Dark is a charmingly understated record consisting largely of songs and lullabies that their respective mothers (the late Kate McGarrigle and Suzzy Roche) sang to them at bedtime as children, along with a handful of what might be termed nostalgic songs.

This isn’t just a thematic collection of covers tho’, for these songs clearly draw a deeper resonance from the role it played in shaping the ladies’ childhoods and sensibilities. Hobo’s Lullaby (from the singing of Woody Guthrie) would have proved an object lesson in awareness of life’s harsher realities, for instance. Familiar issues like the perennial problems of getting children to sleep or stop crying are addressed in Rosalie Sorrels’ Baby Rocking Medley and the Loudon-Terre Roche co-write Screaming Issue, while the pairing of Loudon’s own tell-it-like-it-is Lullaby and Kate’s Lullaby For A Doll is both ingenious and apt. A relaxed treatment of El Condor Pasa soars along beautifully. The early Roches number Runs In The Family also receives a poignant and timely revisit here, and Townes Van Zandt’s Our Mother The Mountain and Richard Thompson’s gloriously doomy End Of The Rainbow both turn out to be great choices; if the latter is perhaps less expected in this context, that’s no bad thing for it’s done brilliantly and with a slightly sinister, ominous demeanour that ensures its dovetailing with the darker side of some of the ostensibly simple, sweet lullabies. Into which company is inserted a surprisingly gorgeous harmony arrangement of the grisly ballad Long Lankin which involves tolling bells and the supporting voices of Anna McGarrigle’s children Lily and Sylvan Lanken. Traditional numbers Go Tell Aunt Rhody, All The Pretty Little Horses and Do You Love An Apple? are thoughtfully dispatched with both delicacy and understanding, the first-mentioned done in spine-tingling solo a cappella mode by Lucy.

The wonderfully intimate atmosphere of the recording is even more pronounced due to the sparseness of the instrumentation, where every detail counts – Joel Zifkin’s violin lines, Eloi Painchaud’s harmonica and banjo and Brad Albetta’s bass, organ and keyboard contributions are all admirably underplayed, entirely naturally augmenting Martha and Lucy’s guitars and the step-siblings’ exquisite, spookily telling vocal harmonies that just seem to come out oh so effortlessly and whose often chilling intensity is offset by an intrinsic warmth and comforting ambience that’s only partly down to the songs themselves. The parlour ambience of the playing is to the fore in the disc’s lone instrumental track, Irving Berlin’s Russian Lullaby (played on the piano by Martha’s aunt, Jane McGarrigle).

The combination of reassuring and unsettling that characterises this repertoire is so well conveyed by Martha and Lucy and their friends in their down-home-kitchen-cum-fireside setting; it’s a real family affair, and one that will surely prove an album to treasure in years to come.

David Kidman

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