Music Review: Wainwright Sisters keep it in the family

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Posted: Nov 12, 2015 5:16 PM
Music Review: Wainwright Sisters keep it in the family

The Wainwright Sisters, "Songs in the Dark" (PIAS)

There can be something magical about the voices of siblings singing together, as a listen to the Beach Boys or the Everly Brothers shows.

More proof comes in this subtly haunting album by Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche, for whom music has always been a family affair. The half-sisters are daughters of singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III and separate musical mothers. Martha's mother, the late Kate McGarrigle, wrote and performed with her sister Anna, while Lucy is the daughter of Suzzy Roche of sister act The Roches.

Themes of family and childhood run through their collaboration "Songs in the Dark," which Martha Wainwright has described as an album of "creepy, morbid lullabies."

Recorded at a family cabin in the Quebec woods, the album is a mix of traditional folk tunes and new takes on songs by the likes of Cindy Walker, Townes Van Zandt and Paul Simon — the sisters make "El Condor Pasa," popularized by Simon & Garfunkel, both languid and fierce.

There are several compositions by members of the sisters' own family, including Kate McGarrigle's wistful "Lullaby for a Doll," written about Martha, and "Runs in the Family" by Roche's aunt, Terre Roche.

The sisters' complementary voices — Roche's a little sweeter, Wainwright's a little wilder — soar over spare arrangements to create a mood that's by turns soothing, sinister and spooky. Special mention should go to Eloi Painchaud, whose haunting harmonica ripples through several tracks.

Many of the songs are about children, but they are anything but cozy. Family life is a journey into the deep, dark woods on songs like Loudon Wainwright's sardonic "Lullaby" — in which an exhausted parent implores, "Shut up and go to bed" — and Richard Thompson's "End of the Rainbow," which advises, "There's nothing at the end of the rainbow, there's nothing to grow up for anymore."

Sweet dreams.

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Follow Jill Lawless at twitter.com/JillLawless