Rich Relations

by Milo Miles

Canadian sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle and Nashville’s Rosanne Cash are veteran singers and songwriters as well as premier cult figures, having recorded outstanding albums since the late 1970s without ever scoring the big audiences they deserve. The McGarrigles’ work has been tied to folk, and Cash’s to country, but the recently released McGarrigles’ Heartheats Accelerating (Private Music) and Cash’s Interiors (Columbia) are beyond categories, simply bracing new songs for adults everywhere.

Singing in harmony as well as solo, the McGarrigles have been dry-eyed realists who knew the seductions of an occasional romantic spree as they chronicled changes in fam-_ ily, lovers, and society. Curiously, other performers could cover one of their numbers (Linda Ronstadt’s version of Anna’s “Heart Like a Wheel” is the most famous) without ever approaching the clustered passions and rigorous lyricism of the sisters’ own records. In the seven years since their last album, both their voices and their subjects have darkened notably.

On Heart beats Accelerating, the rhythms decelerate (except in “Rainbow Ride,” whose rising tempo suggests creeping hysteria) and lives turn into the playthings of inexorable fate, with wrong turns on every side and death crouched at the end. The McGarrigles have always been finely attuned to hardscrabble lives in landscapes with long winters, but Heartheats Accelerating is a test of the soul’s endurance, a series of parables spun from a hoard of harsh legends. From the haunting moan of paranoia in “Mother Mother” to the joyless isolation of “I Eat Dinner,” the McGarrigles can show you fear in a spoonful of mashed potatoes.

For a long time, Rosanne Cash seemed caught up in awkward efforts to win over noncountry fans: New Wave haircuts, quarter-baked notions about rock accompaniment. Her Greatest Hits 19791989 pulled all her poses into a single frame; her originals all fit in fine with songs by the Beatles, Tom Petty, and father Johnny Cash. Interiors, however, is not just the culmination of her extended development but the goal C&W performers have been seeking since Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings began shaking up country music, in the midseventies. Without a whit of nostalgia, it refills the bundle of cravings and sorrow that exalted country records thirty years ago. If Cash, who could always sound warm, has a new conversational ease in her delivery, perhaps it’s because she’s never written so many of the songs on an album, or found such deceptively simple language for them. For every pair of ships passing in the night, there’s a flash like this: “We’re all just like a baby/ Frightened and so sad/Feeling beat up by someone who looks like dad.” Many heavy blows fall throughout Interiors, on both relationships and ideals, but with her restrained and spacious backup giving her room, Cash defines herself for good as a “Real Woman” and defies a life of inert lies in “Paralyzed.”