Mixes: Roche Infestation

A few years ago I was working with a couple of women about my age and I was surprised to find that they’d never heard of The Roches, a three-sister folk group to whom I’ve been listening since someone played their debut album to me, to my delight and wonder, sometime in the early 80s. Noting my colleagues’ blank expressions as I insisted, “The Roches? Robert Fripp? C’mon…” I realized just how obscure The Roches actually are.

Their music is hard to describe, but its hallmark is soaring harmonies and a distinctly off-kilter sensibility. They are talented songwriters, exceptional singers and wholly original. Who else could write an eight-and-a-half-minute song extolling the virtues of a winter coat and somehow make it work?

I put together a Roches mix for my run this morning consisting entirely of my favorite recordings from their extensive ouvre. Over the years they’ve put out a wildly inconsistent set of albums, which has been frustrating. Some albums are just plain terrible. Others are okay, but marred by unwise production choices. I still think their eponymously titled debut (which Fripp produced and plays otherworldly guitar on) is their best, but I’d credit Can We Go Home Now and Speak as two other high points.

I’ve seen them perform at various points — once in Manhattan in the mid-1980s (I think it was The Bottom Line, but it may have been somewhere else) and then again later that decade on Staten Island at Snug Harbour Cultural Center. Both shows were great. Then, about 10 years ago, I went to see one of them, Suzzy, do a solo show at the church at the bottom of my street to promote her solo album, Holy Smokes. It was, frankly, depressing to see such a talented woman performing for $15 to a room of about 50 people. But perform she did and managed to singlehandedly bring to life songs that on record had required the vocal work of three. My favorite song of that set was “Home Away From Home,” which she managed masterfully with just one guitar and voice. I still think of that song as one of their masterpieces.

Anyway, here’s the playlist. If you’ve never heard of The Roches, start with the bold titles. They represent a pretty good cross-section of their sound. If you don’t like those, you won’t like any of them.

  1. This Feminine Position
  2. Keep on Doing What You Do / Jerks On The Loose
  3. Scorpion Lament
  4. Losing True
  5. Feeling is Mutual
  6. Nocturne
  7. Easy
  8. Person With a Past
  9. Cloud Dancing
  10. Big Nuthin’
  11. Speak
  12. Weeded Out
  13. Face Down At Folk City
  14. Love Radiates Around
  15. My Winter Coat
  16. Holidays
  17. Move
  18. Home Away From Home
  19. Hammond Song
  20. Mr. Sellack
  21. The Train
  22. Quitting Time

2 Responses

  1. This is a lovely post. It makes me think that most of us have artists we consider to be deserving of greater acclaim than they currently receive. For me, that artist is Marshall Crenshaw, who also rose to prominence in the 1980s. I was struck by your comment about how uneven some of the Roches’ albums are (some of Crenshaw’s albums are like that, as well) and by the poignancy of seeing one of your favorite singers performing in front of such a small crowd in a strange venue.

    • I am also a big Crenshaw fan. I’ve seen him perform a few times and his concerts are always an interesting combination of his stuff plus covers (he likes to throw in Abba tunes). The first time I saw him was in the mid-80s and he came off as really arrogant, although upon later reflection I wondered if it was simple stagefright. He was actually verbally abused by the audience at one point. It wasn’t pretty. I was surprised that he kept playing.

      The last time I saw him was, again, in my backyard for $25 a pop about four years ago, playing to a room of maybe 100 very appreciative people. I should add that he is a hugely underrated guitarist and has gotten better and better over the decades. That guy knows his jazz chords.

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