Issue #51: The Roches by The Roches

February 6, 2017

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The Roches by The Roches
Released On April 11, 1979
Released By Warner Bros. Records

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Doug Nunnally

Creative wonder. That’s what The Roches represent to me.

After what feels like a million listens, their music, adventurous and gorgeous, exemplifies the best traits of songwriting to me: the excitement, the innovation, the beauty, the diligence, and, perhaps most importantly, the enjoyment. Their debut record, full of ingenious harmonies, impish banter, and sweet spunk, is a timeless, albeit forgotten classic and a true standard for any songwriter wishing to be authentic and sincere.

One of my fellow OYR contributors often challenges me on songs and artists being “too safe.” The concept is not something I think about often in music — mostly because I believe the phrase is dangerously close to becoming the new “selling out” — but it is a fair point to bring up when assessing music and something very important to consider about The Roches because there is absolutely nothing safe about The Roches’ debut record… in 1979 or today. “Mr. Sellack” pairs the sisters’ ability to subtly build a song and pull the rug under you with a resounding key change, but how many critics dare praise it since the song is simply about a waitress begging for her job back in classic “the grass is greener” fare? “The Troubles” is as challenging as any song on this record with a fun, memorable ditty being eschewed by repetitive “boyfriend soon” detours and an ending ode to strawberry apricot pie. Even a musical monument like “Hammond Song” is far from “safe” with Maggie’s resounding counter-lines bound to rub some people the wrong way. The trio takes as many risks as one possibly can on a debut record, but these aren’t calculated risks or even gimmicks: it’s all just who The Roches are which speaks to the core appeal of their sound.

Much of the praise for this album was, and still is, pointed at producer Robert Fripp for his behind-the-scenes direction and subtle contributions, a fact that becomes increasingly irritating as you dig deeper. By Fripp’s own admission, he produced the record by “not interfering with the performance by equalization, limiting, and so on” which was the crux of his “audio verité” technique. His best production method was to get out of the sisters’ way and let The Roches be The Roches. That’s not to say that Fripp shouldn’t be commended; his celebrated musical mind certainly had an impact on the trio as both records he produced with them, this record and 1982’s Keep On Doing, are clearly the sisters’ best work. But if we listen to opening track of Keep On Doing, their stunning and intricate interpretation of “The Hallelujah Chorus“, one thing is clear: The Roches were sonic powerhouses regardless of who was in the booth.

Often overlooked too is the role sequencing plays on this record (and in their concerts) as they push the heavyweight compositions “Hammond Song” and “Quitting Time” to the opposite ends of the record allowing the two to perfectly balance the album with their power and poise. In between, the humor plays out (“Mr. Sellack,” “Damned Old Dog“) before shifting to more contemplative and poignant themes (“The Train,” “Runs In The Family“) that are much more effective after building up your Roches acumen.

And what of those two heavyweight songs, “Quitting Time” and “Hammond Song?” The former is an elegant display of Maggie Roche’s unique and marvelous voice that’s firmly bolstered by her sisters’ blissful voices and helps transforms a routine day-end song into a mesmerizing chant that could enthrall even a curmudgeon like Stanley Hudson. The latter is a true classic song in every sense of the phrase from beginning to end, something enhanced by the Fripperies abound, but still tangible in stripped down live versions. No matter the setting, there’s nothing more resounding than the contrarian note of “we fall apart” becoming absorbed into the main melody at the conclusion of the third verse. Fleeting brilliance by design, the moment sums up all you’ll ever need to know about the power of The Roches’ vocal polyphony.

Without even knowing it, I’ve been a fan of The Roches most of my life thanks to Tiny Toons and Paul Simon. It was one of my greatest honors to have the band take part in my I’m With Them project last month celebrating women in music, and it is also an honor to talk about them now in this medium and hopefully introduce a new batch of listeners into their expansive world of luxuries harmonies and bold compositions.

The Roches are a band I’ll always cite as overlooked and influential whether I’m talking to a publication or a patient friend as you’ll see below. With Maggie’s recent passing, that’s only going to increase as will my admiration for this record, a true masterpiece. You could try arguing that point, but as “Hammond Song” says so poignantly, “Why don’t you face the facts, you old upstart?”

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

From left to right, they are Terre and Maggie and Suzzy and as a point of interest, they spell their last name R-O-C-H-E.

Narrative always comes first in any writing class I teach. When you’re concerned about the workload of college, or making a good enough grade, or just getting through a class you don’t want to take but it’s required for your degree, the easiest thing you can write about should be yourself. You are the expert on you, I say from my Dry Erase pulpit. Yet the biggest issue I encounter with the narrative essay is my students having the idea that they don’t have anything to say. So many of my freshmen tell me they haven’t had enough of a life yet to write anything compelling, and I wish I could let them listen to an album like The Roches. So much of these sisters’ lives that could be considered mundane informs the lyrics on this album. The first song, entitled “We,” functions like an introduction, giving the listeners an idea about who we are about to hear and shaping a context for the songs about leaving boyfriends behind as they fly to Ireland or the married men that pay for cab fare in the early morning. Encased in a pleasant country folk sound, sung in their high and thin harmonies, the songs are stories of the details of their lives, not the big things one thinks she should talk about, but all the little things that actually make up the ins and outs of her life. The honesty and ability to pull out these little moments seems bold for a group of women in 1979, given that in 2017 so many women’s voices and women’s stories are still surrounded by men who would shut them up, men like our commander-in-chief who would turn a derisive ear while grabbing them by the pussies. There is a defiant chin up present in the sweetly delivered, often humorous album, and while I know this album plays differently on these angry feminist ears than it may have in 1979, I am taking this as a reminder that sometimes the most powerful protest can be writing not the songs you think you should write, but the songs you want to hear.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

Having never heard of The Roches, and going in with zero research, my mind was awash with what I was about to listen too. With a name like that and a release date of 1979 surely this is some kind of rock or punk band? Or maybe it’s about to get funky… hell, I could even use some disco right now. Then I hit play and “We” started and my jaw hit the floor. What on Earth is this? Turns out what I was listening to was glorious. Imagine if Weird Al wrote lyrics for Fleetwood Mac, and you pretty much have The Roches debut record. It’s quirky, witty, and just an absolute delight. Sometimes when you imagine how something is going to be, and then it actually completely shifts your expectations, it can leave you cold to what you’re experiencing. Not this record. It’s an album that you could very well leave after the opening track, such is the unusualness of “We.” But stick with it and you’ll find some lovely harmony work and twangy bluegrass guitar. It’s not a perfect record by any means, but The Roches lay their cards down on the table all at once hoping you’ll stick. I very much did, and I’m all the better for it.

James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist

As you may already know by now, this kind of music is not normally part of my regular diet of tunes. However, The Roches self-titled album is quite exceptional and could certainly stand to make some appearances on my future playlists. I feel like a lot of bare bones music like this presupposes that you’re okay with the rawness of the singer’s raspy vocal, or off-tune guitar playing. Not here. The Roches exhibit a refined approach to both their angelic vocals and precise instrumentals throughout the album. What will stay with me the most are their incredible harmonies. I was struck first by “Hammond Song,” and then later by the hauntingly beautiful “Pretty & High.” In fact, the chorus and melody from “Pretty And High” has been stuck in my head for several hours now… I guess that’s kind of the point though.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

There’s a special kind of spirituality found in almost all folk music, where artists take the everyday ordinary and transform it into something more than what it seems. It’s something The Roches do wonderfully with both reverence and a wink on their self-titled debut album. There’s also a humor and sincerity present throughout the album, most clearly seen in the opening two tracks. The plucky, witty “We” slips in a pun as the Roches sing their introduction; conversely, the sisterly bond narrative of the utterly sublime “Hammond Song” and its devastatingly beautiful windswept harmonies and guitar is its polar opposite. The other songs on the album lie between these two on the spectrum of funny to serious, but The Roches hold it all together with their clear identities and close relationship coming through in their songs. It’s always a treat to hear great music from earlier eras that reveals a clear thread to some of my favorite contemporary artists (First Aid Kit, Weyes Blood, Haim, Fleet Foxes).

David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer

I’ve been hearing the name The Roches for years without ever really knowing what their deal was. I associated them with the post-Joni Mitchell folkies of the late ’70s — your Janis Ians and Joan Armtradings — and therefore, whether or not it was a valid assumption, always figured I didn’t need to dig into their stuff. I know Doug’s a big fan — he’s ranted about how great this debut self-titled album from 1979 is in my presence before, on multiple occasions in fact. Since I respect Doug’s tastes for the most part, I decided to be a bit more open-minded when approaching this one than I might otherwise have been. The novelty opening number, “We,” tested my patience with its self-conscious cutesy-ness, but I could tell that was intentional, so I figured I’d give the album a full listen before I made a decision. I’m glad I did! “We” is followed by “Hammond Song,” one of the only tracks on the album that bears any obvious influence from producer Robert Fripp (of King Crimson fame), and the result combines the beautiful harmonies of the three Roche sisters with some gorgeous atmospherics provided by layers of synth, bass, and chiming acoustic guitar. For the most part, the rest of the album creates atmosphere solely through the use of the incredible Roche harmonies, but it still works quite well on the whole, especially on Maggie Roche-penned tunes like “Damned Old Dog” and “Quitting Time.” There are a few other moments similar to “We,” in which the sisters indulge in tendencies toward novelty and amusement, and in so doing, kinda lose me. None of them, thankfully, take up an entire song, and even the vocal-round gymnastics of “The Troubles” is still prettier than it is off-putting. Minimalist it may be; most of the songs consist of no more than an acoustic guitar and the hypnotic harmonized vocals of the three Roche sisters. However, at its best moments (which honestly probably fill 75% or so of the album), The Roches envelops you in a warm embrace, one you will want to sink blissfully into.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

Click below to watch a gorgeous live performance of “Hammond Song.”

Revel in the astounding harmonies that seem somehow grander in a live setting.

The bouncy opening of strummed perfect fourths, and sliding, half step, sung notes of tongue-in-cheek introductory track, “We,” set my mind up to think I was in store for a comical a-capella record; something light but not of substance. I was wrong. It was, however, relatively easy for feelings about this late ’70s album to come rushing to the surface right from that opening song. The Roches as an album, and The Roches as musicians, are largely vocal-minded folk artists. These three women from Jersey sing in perfect sync with one another, whether in unison or via three part harmony. There’s a wholly natural and gifted precision to their voices that re-emphasizes why today’s digitalization and seemingly bottomless abyss of Auto-Tune mix application can make many fans of music irate. The Roches shoves that classic character of ’70s folk recordings right to the forefront. Aside from more cheeky cuts like the onomatopoeia-minded “Damned Old Dog” (“Do I wanna be a houuuse broken dog?”), a warmly captured acoustic guitar so often heard alongside peers like Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Phoebe Snow, and Linda Ronstadt — the latter two of whom rocketed “The Married Men” to popularity by way of SNL — and narratives that balance descriptive normalcy with avoidance of the blasé (“I spy on the big guy / sitting next to me / He’s drinking two beers / and reading the New York Post“) makes the sisters’ debut album one that is easy to take in and enjoy without prompting an impulse for concentrated analysis. Occasionally, moments of divergent sparkle, like the recurring blue note style harmonization in “Hammond Song” and less-than-expected appearance of electric a classic rock toned electric guitar, inspire brief pause but never in an alarming manner. In brief, The Roches takes listeners back to the time of shrewdly performed vocal music and, on a personal level, really made me miss middle school singing ensemble because I kept wanting to harmonize and sing along. Funny enough, mid-writing this, I was listening to The New Yorker Radio Hour, which played a segment called “A-Capella Comeback,” interviewing composer, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and something she said during her interview seems all too relevant to the source of enjoyment for this album: “It turns out, that if you’re in a room singing harmony, we release the neurotransmitters serotonin and oxytocin, which are responsible for happiness, elevated mood levels, and bonding.”

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

I don’t know what I was expecting upon listening to The Roches’ self-titled album. Whatever thoughts I had were quickly shattered once I hear the lush harmonies of The Roche sisters. The opening lines of “We” are simple yet eloquently stated in a chorus of “this is who we are and where we’ve been” before setting up “this is where we’re going” as the albums progresses. It’s upbeat folk, but not in a manufactured way. It’s real and honest as only The Roches could play it.

Andrew Cothern (@rvaplaylist)
Beloved & Influential Richmond Chronicler

My mom visited over the weekend, and on the way to the South of the James market on Saturday morning, with my Off Your Radar blurb in the back of my mind, I asked her about The Roches. (My dad loved them, and I have and regularly spin his copy of their self-titled album.) After telling me about the time she and my dad saw them perform in the massive, echoey church we went to when I was growing up, she pointed to something that coincidentally relates directly to my Renée Fleming OYR blurb two weeks ago: the distinctive and wildly impressive lack of vibrato in The Roches’ harmonies. It’s amazing. I’m guessing a number of us will mention and praise “Hammond Song” — listening with their unwavering tonality in the front of your mind means being completely absorbed by the mechanics of the human voice. What tips the song into the realm of the transcendent for me is how seamlessly the synth lines that descend from the song’s peaks extend and replicate the lack of vibrato in the vocals. How amazing would it have been to hear those parts bounce off the walls of a giant stone church? Just the thought is enough to make me well up. My mom confessed at the end of Saturday’s conversation that The Roches weren’t her bag and reminded me that they had a similar marital disagreement about Vivaldi. Regardless, it’s fun knowing that she, my dad, and I have been awed by what Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy were able to do with their voices. Rest in peace, Maggie.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

A trio virtually unmatched in their command of melody, harmony, and arrangement.

1979 was a landmark year — for my parents, certainly, as it was the year I was born, but it saw the release of one of my favorite records, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, a perfect double album from a band with three phenomenal songwriters (the best, in order, and this cannot be disputed: Buckingham, McVie, Nicks). Also released that year was another album from three songwriters: The Roches’s self-titled debut, which showcased a folk trio of sisters from New Jersey singing three-part harmony. I’ve been in a weird music mood and folky cuteness did not really fit. What saves The Roches from becoming too precious is the excellent production of Robert Fripp (it sounds modern and clean, and I love Fripp’s guitar playing and “Fripperies” on “Hammond Song“) and the women’s sense of humor. I can’t pick a favorite song, let alone a favorite lyric. They are all so good. “Mr. Sellack,” written by middle sister Terre, is about a woman asking for her waitress job back, while making promises to her old boss to “do the creams.” She sings, “Now the only thing I want / Is to have my old job back again / I won’t be nasty to customers no more / When they send their burger back I’ll tell them that / I’m sorry.” Youngest sibling Suzzy wrote “The Train,” which hilariously details a frustrating commuter trip. When I heard, “He is miserable / I am miserable / We are miserable / Can’t we have a party,” I laughed because that these are exactly the kind of cynical lyrics I would write if I had any musical talent. I’m sure others will write more poetically than I about the harmonies, but truly, they are glorious, and a perfect complement to the witty lyrics, making the album a wonderful whole music experience. Further listening: supergroup The Living Sisters‘ under-appreciated 2010 record, Love To Live, which combines the same three-part harmonies and folk sensibilities of The Roches with a ’60s girl group vibe.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ

There’s about five ways I could begin this review. One could be: “Doug, Doug, Doug… didn’t I already test your Virginian hospitality when I shook my head bemusedly after you asked if I liked The Roches?” Another could be to describe the ubiquity of this singing trio on the New York scene in the late 70’s and early ’80s, as they gigged incessantly at every folk club in town. You could hardly go downtown without seeing their name on a flyer glued to a lamppost. Yet a third could be to talk about how my brother was an early adopter and went to more than a few of those gigs, as I recall, and bought at least the first three records with upon release. I could then talk about how he played me those records and how confusing I found them. Were they singers or comedians? Were their harmonies cold and hard, or was it my heart that had those qualities? I think I’ll just say that I listened to The Roches with an open mind after more than 30 years of not hearing a note and was still confused — except about one thing: “Hammond Song” is fucking brilliant. I can imagine finding a copy of the original vinyl at a flea market with that track completely destroyed from repeat listening, and rightfully so. There’s a reason it has over 600,000 more streams than the next highest placing song of theirs on Spotify. From the touches of organ to the tingling of the triangle, and from the subtlest of Robert Fripp’s Frippertronics to that indelibly lonely melody, which fits their Andrews Sisters-style tight harmonies like a glove, this is pop music perfection. I respect anyone who can touch the godhead of great song-making, whether it’s Timmy Thomas, Tommy Tucker, Norman Greenbaum, Fetty Wap, or The Roches. I will now listen at least once every winter. Thanks, Doug. And rest in peace, Maggie — you left your mark.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

I didn’t know Robert Fripp had produced The Roches before I got started. While the more obvious guitar part on “Hammond Song” is perfectly Fripp, it’s the great subtle ear candy revealed with headphones that really enhances the beautiful singing harmonies of The Roches. Things like the synths (or is it layered guitars?) on “The Married Men” adds a little texture while “We” bounces around your head giving the opening track a dizzying effect. The combination of natural talent filtered through Fripp’s ear and paired with an iconic portrait by Gary Heery (who was working with people Roy Orbison, Chicago, Robin Williams and George Burns around that same time) help to make this a classic record.

PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man

This is the perfect record for a Sunday afternoon. The harmonies are beautiful and the balance between sparse and full compositions is a great, warm contrast. “Damned Old Dog” reminded me of a song that my friends in Hot Dolphin wrote about a similar subject. In imagining what life would be like as a dog, the song further gives authority to this fantasy. On their self-titled debut, The Roches take the idioms of folk music in fascinating directions and it gives fresh life to a genre that can be accused of growing tired in a few instances. “The Married Men” offers a mildly frightening narrative about the desperation of the titular figures and how that reflects on their desires outside of matrimony. They even take moments to detail day-to-day trials with songs like “The Train” and “Mr. Sellack.” Imagining this as the debut of this project, it makes me wonder how they creatively expanded in the years following it and particularly with the news of the passing of Maggie Roche earlier this year. Nonetheless, I did really enjoy the subtlety of this record and it was cool to discover that one of the members of King Crimson was a featured player on this record as well.

Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles

This album for sure came out in 1979. I checked. I wanted to make sure because it is so progressive and brazen, it feels like it can’t possibly be from earlier than 1993. But it does and it’s amazing. When they sang, oh so prettily on “We,” “before the shit hits the fan,” I just about fell over. It’s not what you’d expect when you first hit play, but then you keep listening and it’s this weird combination of Andrews Sisters vocals but with this “If anyone has a problem with what we’re saying, we’ll happily meet you outside” attitude that was like a constant spray of ice cold water to the small of the back. Surprising and ultimately refreshing, but somewhat shocking in its unexpectedness. I also love Robert Fripp’s guitar work on “Hammond Song.” There’s so much here that made me love this album. And it just keeps on coming. I feel horrible that it’s only through our fearless leader Doug that I have ever heard of them. He has championed them for a long time and I’m thankful that he has, and that he picked this album to feature this week, because it means I have a lot more research to do on this alluring and fascinating group of women.

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

Next Week’s Selection:
Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um: The Best Of Major Lance by Major Lance
Chosen By Laura Burroughs

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Josh Buck, Laura Burroughs, Shannon Cleary, Andrew Cothern, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Matt Klimas, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, Jeremy Shatan, & PJ Sykes

Logo By Matt Klimas


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