MAGGIE, TERRE, and Suzzy Roche's debut album has received lavish praise from many New York rock critics, but The Roches (Warner Brothers BSK 3298) is a bit more uneven than some reviews suggest.
The Roche sisters are acoustic singer/songwriters originally from "deepest New Jersey," as "We", the autobiographical opening track of their record, recounts. Their producer is Robert Fripp, the experienced English guitarist whose electronic forays are mercifully absent from this effort. Fripp, like the Roches, is something of a musical eccentric, and his presence is appropriate: he seems to have an intuitive feel for the sisters' compositions, allowing their work to present itself undiluted. His approach (and theirs) is austere, employing only the women's harmonies, acoustic guitars, and an occasional synthesizer or electric guitar. "Recorded in audio verite," the credits read, it's an accurate description: every rough-textured nuance of sound can be heard. Whatever criticisms can be levelled against The Roches, over-production isn't one of them; this is a blessed relief.
Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy sing and play guitar on the 10 songs included; their voices are strong and clear, and for three people, they achieve a remarkably full effect. The sister's material is indeed intelligent, but too often they are so sidetracked into being self-consciously clever or devious or satirical that the songs' straightforward content (both lyrical and musical) is weakened.
The first three compositions on The Roches are excellent. The above-mentioned "We" is a short, sprightly song that sets about answering fans' questions - "Who have we worked with/Do we know anybody famous?" "Hammond Song" is a beautiful haunting piece, with Robert Fripp's synthesizer providing a welcome and ethereal overlay. Terre's "Mr. Sellack" is the wry tale of a singer who decides she doesn't want to be a star after all, she just wants her dirty-work restaurant job back. "I've waited for some things that you would not believe/To come true," she confesses, but recovers to joke "Give me a broom and I'll sweep my way to heaven."
Unfortunately, the remaining songs aren't quite as appealing. "Damned Old Dog," with its countrified touches, tries too hard for novelty (wails of "bowwow"); it drags tediously, as does "The Troubles," an account of a forthcoming journey to Ireland. In addition, the Roches choose here a series of simple lyric figures that don't work very well: "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." It is possible to write precious imagery into a song without sounding too banal or contrived (Jackson Browne's "The Pretender" is a good example), but the words in such a case would seem to require a more general applicability to be successful.
Frequently the Roches' harmonies reveal multiple, random influences. "The Troubles" ends with the Gregorian chant-like "strawberry apricot pie," while Suzzy's single contribution, "The Train," has an imaginative chorus vaguely reminiscent of television commercials - "Once you step on/you might never step off of the commuter train/it doesn't go very far way/but . . . it's a trip and a half." "The Married Men," sung from the point of view of a restless married woman, is surprisingly authentic and contains traces of Gaelic folksongs.
"Runs in the Family" limps along depressingly, and like "The Train," has moments of labored lyrics and forced rhythms. In some songs, the refrain seems stronger than the verses ("Quiting Time," the opening of which suggests a reprise of "Hammond Song"). And finally, it seems that just when the sisters achieve a sparkling effect, they step in to cancel or obliterate it. "Pretty and High," about a circus performer, starts out well with its stray guitar pluckings, but turns into a confusing morality parable; the listener ends up not caring if the narrator is only "partly a lie." The errie keening of the song's last lines is particularly dramatic, but the women's chants of "liar, liar" mar the impression.
Instances such as this are especially maddening since the Roches' compositions are so promising. Their wry humor is often well-focused; Terre's writing is lightly ironic, while Maggie's is the sharpest and most brooding. Their harmonies are intentionally ragged and unfinished. This album, thugh, is strewn with regrets, questions of family loyalties; the songs' themes of bonding can become stifling, and one begins to wish for the strong, even anarchic, assertion of individuality that is so much a part of rock's sensibility.
Although the Roches' work isn't yet uniformly gripping enough to stand with that of the very best songwriters, it is inventive and adventurous. The Roches may introduce the best new pop artists of the year.