Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Sisters and city girls

The Roches

It's New York, 1979. Punk is petering out, disco's dying, hip hop's an inchoate art, new wave's ascendant. And The Roches . . . The Roches, where the hell did they come from? So far out of left field, it turns out, they might as well be in another ballpark.

Sisters Maggie and Terre Roche had existed as musical vagabonds in the city for a decade--singing backup for Paul Simon and releasing an all-but-ignored album--when baby sis Suzzy dropped out of college to join them. The power of three, blood ties and raw talent worked a strange alchemy, yielding something quite original and extraordinary. The Roches' debut self-titled album (US, UK) is a weird, wonderful artifact--like nothing you've ever heard. I suppose you could call it an urban folk record, but that doesn't get at those odd doo-wop and vaudeville touches or Robert Fripp's elastic guitar accompaniment.

Not to the mention the lyrics. Jesus, the lyrics. From the conversational, way-too-literal statement of solidarity "We" that opens the album to its closer, "Pretty and High," an exhilarating fable of independence and ambivalence, this stuff is special. Sandwiched between you've got anecdotes about love and heartbreak, work and money, family and escaping family--all just a little bent. You may, for example, think you know what a song called "The Troubles" and starts "We're going away to Ireland soon" is going to be about. Nope:

I hope they have health food in Dublin
And strawberry apricot pie
If they don't have those things in Dublin
We'll probably die.

"The Married Men" is more conventional, but in its timid bravado, poignant:

When they look into my eyes
I know what to do
I make sure the words I say are true
When they send me off at dawn
Pay the driver my fare
They know I am going down somewhere.

But really, I should mention the main reason music geeks revere the Roches: the singing, three-part harmonies that coalesce so expertly they sound like a single voice. Later records would be "prettier," as the girls' skills improved, and more ordinary as the shock of the new was lost. A lot of people seem to get worked up over The Roches' version of the Hallelujah Chorus (off their third record, Keep on Doing). Sounds like standard Christmas fare to me. But that debut record . . . a view of the world so idiosyncratic and effective that we might as well call it timeless.

The Married Men - The Roches

Pretty and High - The Roches

Hallelujah Chorus - The Roches

The Owls seem like an appropriate coda here. I came across this band last weekend while researching my post on Work of Saws (like that group, they're from the Twin Cities). And like The Roches, they've got a family thing going; multi-instrumentalists Brian Tighe and Allison LaBonne are married. LaBonne trades lines with another singer Maria May and Tighe provides backing harmonies on these tentative, beguiling tunes.

City Girl - The Owls

Air - The Owls


Blogger mike weber/fairportfan said...

Many years back, my ex-wife mentioned that a friend, knowing that both she and i were big-time Roches fans, had shown her the segment of Tiny Toon Adventures featuring the sisters as the voices of the Singing Roach Sisters.

So she was describing it to me, and she said "...and Maggie loses her temper and starts chewing out Hampton..." and i said "Wait a minute - Maggie?"

And she said "That's just the tone i said that in when Terry was describing it to me. And then i had to explain why to her."

(A footnote to "Hammond Song" - Bill Davis, leader of gonzo cowpunk trio Dash Rip Rock is about the most unlikely Roches fan i know - Maggie and Teri were his older sister's roommates during their Louisiana period...)

5:48 PM  

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