Three Roches Crack Wise

There is a kind of woman who experiences uncontrollable urges to wear boxer-style underpants, or to get drunk and insult the useful, or to buy shoes out of pity for them, or to make terrible crucial decisions from pure curiosity. A while ago, two such women went to see the Roches, the idiosyncratic sister trio who headlined at Kenny's Castaways last week, and before the first number was half through, the skeptical one had turned red every place showed and whispered, "They're the best!" to the other one. The other one was me, and I already knew. Not that this wry group--specializing in acid judgments, sweet contrapuntal harmonies, intricate word and rhyme play, and outright buffoonery--is the new Beatles, but that, if anyone is us up on that jukebox, sister, it's them. I don't just mean us thinking clowns, either. I mean anyone who believes in postponing compromise for as long as possible. My guess is that the Roches have hit on humor as the best way to tell an audience complex truths engagingly while while staying true to their own relatively modest and relatively thorny selves.

Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy Roche grew up in Park Ridge, New Jersey, where their father was an English teacher, Irish actor, etc. Maggie and Terry toured the coffeehouse circuit from 1969 to 1975, when they cut Seductive Reasoning for Columbia. The songs were ambitious, enigmatic, not without wit, and delivered in sweet, sarcastic voices. Subjects included an uncertain interracial romance, town-and-gown conflicts at an Appalachian college, and a character sketch of a complicated boy whose shy virginity the singer is honored to take. Self-doubt after the recording and disappearance of this striking album led the two sisters out of music and into a kung fu temple in Louisiana, but some Christmas carolling with the younger Suzzy lured them back in 1976.

Last Wednesday's show was the fifth I've seen in a year, all strange and wonderful. The first, on St. Patrick's Day, featured Irish ballads, MC Terre's measured sarcasm, and kitsch thrift-shop plums worn without a trace of chic (I seem to recall Terre in a wrinkled jumpsuit, probably homemade from one of those crummy "very easy" pants patterns; people always throw them out). Wednesday offered a spiffier Maggie and Terre (too bad!); a handful of songs new or new to me including a a simultaneously spoken and sung arrangement of a poem of someone called Jessie Fauset; some more familiar recent material; covers of "The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane," the Crystals' "He's Sure the Boy I Love," an Irish ballad called "The Factory Girl, and the "Hallelujah" chorus; plus three songs from the album.

Although a third voice makes for more ambitious harmonies, the Roches' sound is still a lot like the duo's, with a clarity and rural twang out of bluegrass, I guess, delivered deadpan against lyrics like "I don't want to be a doggone dog/I just want to lick your chin again," or "Go south in winter if you want/Be what you are/A goose." But Suzzy has reoriented the group. Sporting unmatched socks or bag-lady scarves, beating percussion on a book of Irish folksongs or a can of breadcrumbs, mugging shamelessly, posing somewhere between carved madonna and mental defective, she has, well, broadened the group's humor. Where most of the group's old material was Maggie's old trick of making a musical shape highlight the humblest, most unlovely word in a phrase, exaggerated for comic timing, now goes for the odd syllable. And Suzzy brings a bag of new tricks. She yuks up "The Boy I Love" by repeating the ecstatic refrain "Yes he is!" "Yes he is!" so many times that she starts to mime justifications: maybe she's so dimwitted it's new for her each time, maybe the jerk asking "Is he?" is so dimwitted he or she can't grasp her meaning yet, or maybe the jerk is trying to convince her to reconsider, or maybe this is just her job as telephone receptionist (or tape loop).

If they're like anyone it's the McGarrigles with a dash of Loudon Wainwright (who's friends to both). Where the tongue-in-cheek sisters from Canada keep to the delicate, arch end of enigmatic dryness, the oddballs from New Jersey are more deadpan and rude. If the McGarrigles are ambivalent, the Roches are skeptical. More important, even in their serious songs--which I hope won't disapper--the Roches seem less interested in remembered moments or relationships as such than struck by their place in various kinds of schemes. When I chatted with her, Terre volunteered a similar analysis: "We're idea people."

As I get meaner, lonelier, and more curious with the years, I take increasing comfort in idea people and clowns. In case this condition should prove chronic, I hope the Roches can keep both sides up. And earn a living, too.

Village Voice, Feb. 20, 1978