The Roches (Warner Bros. 1979)
[Editor's note: Celtic Ray, TNOP's correspondent from County Clare, Republic of Ireland, contributed this entry in the series.]
The resurgence of vocal harmony in popular music has been a trend worth noting in the last couple of years. The Magic Numbers, The Thrills, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear and Monsters of Folk have been in the forefront. As a long time listener, I immediately hearken back to these groups' obvious influences: the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
But a message from an old colleague reminded us of an album from 1979 by three Irish-American sisters hailing from New Jersey. Appropriately enough, they introduce themselves on Side One, Track One:
Sisters Maggie and Terre had been bartenders at Gerde's Folk City in New York and were allowed to perform on occasion on stage. In 1973, the two contributed backing vocals on Paul Simon's There Goes Rhymin' Simon. The two recorded one album together, Seductive Reasoning (1975). After a brief detour living in Louisiana, they were joined by younger sis Suzzy at the end of the 1970s. The trio got a deal with Warner Brothers, resulting in the self-titled LP produced in "audio verite" by erst-while King Crimson leader and guitar wizard Robert Fripp.
Fripp's sparse sonic touch and unique instrumental skills are most apparent on "Hammond Song," The Roches' masterpiece, spotlighting the opposing contralto of Maggie with the soprano of Terre. The addition of Suzzy provides the middle glue that bridges the high and low vocal ranges. Here are the sisters Roche singing the song from an appearance on PBS' Soundstage back in 1983:
Terre's "Mr. Sellack" follows, a lament to the unsure life of a singer. Begging for her job back, Maggie's voice drops to the ground, singing Give me a broom/And I'll sweep my way to heaven. The Roches thought it the perfect vehicle to showcase not only their harmonies but playful stage presence as well on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1981.
"The Troubles" is particularly clever. The lyric borrows the phrase coined for the sectarian strife in Ireland at the time and juxtaposes that serious subject with the personal "troubles" of leaving one's boyfriend and hoping to find a favorite food in a foreign land. The blending of the three voices then breaks off into a round.
The voices are so confident throughout the record not only emoting their own personal foibles, but those of the various characters that pop up in everyday life: parents, siblings, friends and strangers. The Roches are reporters of the ridiculous and sublime: "The Train" is a John Cheever-like story with a clever wink.
A wink with substance. And that's the wonderful trick of The Roches. Just when you are tempted to focus on the sillier aspect of the lyrics or the stripped down production, you're grabbed by voices running off alone or in pairs, or an emotional lump comes into your throat when sympathizing with one of the myriad characters that fill the record. "Quitting Time" ponders the reward of a life's work against the goal of retirement. And the there's "The Married Men," a tale of dalliance to ward off loneliness - with a cost. Phoebe Snow made this song popular; watch she and Linda Ronstadt perform it on Saturday Night Live on 19 May 1979:
As with any album that calls you back for repeated listens, the closing track has to deliver. And the Roche Sisters do so in spades. "Pretty and High" conveys the literal high-wire act and the awe it can inspire on occasion. The first verse is an apt summation of how you will feel when you discover The Roches:
She came on the stage/In a dress like the sky/She had painted a sunset/Around her eyes/And all of the people/Were charmed and surprised/At how pretty and high/ And shy she was/Pretty and high and shy