To describe the Roches as feminist folkies is accurate but insufficient. These three sisters from New Jersey have the subtlety and irony that's missing from much women's music, and they possess a musical sophistication that's foreign to most folk music.
Both the irony and music are richer than ever on "Keep On Doing" (Warner Bros. 1-23725), the Roches' third album as a trio. The new record combines the joyful accessibility of the group's 1979 debut album with the difficult challenges of its 1980 "Nurds." While "Keep On Doing" reaffirms all the Roches' past assets, it also shows that this select sorority is moving forward. The new record also reunites the group with its first producer, Robert Fripp. He and his King Crimson band-mates perform occasional cameos, but basically the record features the sisters' three voices and acoustic guitars. The Roches appear Sunday at the Wax Museum.
The trio's musical growth is evident on Maggie Roche's "Losing True," where the voices lock in close intervals for a spellbinding lament of long, sustained vowels weaving a tight harmony: "Last time I saw you I wanted to paw you/ not to destroy you now I just annoy you I'm/losin' to/accusin' you." It's just as evident in Terre and Suzzy Roche's "I Fell in Love," where the rising title line is countered by descending scat harmonies and soaring falsetto in a swirl of competing musical directions. In each case, the thick vocal mix gives comforting sisterly support to the lyrics' personal confession. The lyrics achieve a rare, clear-eyed view of both sides in a relationship.
Terre Roche's instrumental, "Sex Is for Children," reveals how much she's learned from Fripp's tutorship. The Roches' redeeming humor sparkles on Terre Roche's adolescent autobiography, "The Largest Elizabeth in the World," and the group's hilarious anthem of self-denial, "Want Not, Want Not": "Holy Mackerel isn't that Schneeschaw over there/ She's got my face on she's got my hair/ She took what I had my cupboard bare/ It's what she wanted I don't care."
The Roches' jazzed-up a cappella version of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," long a favorite in their live shows, kicks off the album. A haunting folk song about love with a highway robber, "On the Road to Fairfax County," is actually a new song by David Massengill. As the three sisters join to sing, "They hung him from the oak tree / Where he made love to me," a simple melody becomes an expansive harmony, a new song becomes timeless and a private agony becomes a common one.
In a totally different vein, San Francisco's Bonnie Hayes & Wild Combo sound a lot like L.A.'s Go-Go's, not because Hayes is imitating those new superstars, but because she draws on the same tradition: early '60s girl groups. Keyboardist/singer Hayes and her three male musicians revive that big-beat pop sound every bit as well as the Go-Go's. Moreover, Hayes' lyrics bring out the differences between 1962 women and 1982 women more explicitly than the Go-Go's' lyrics do. Perhaps the best example on Hayes' debut album, "Good Clean Fun" (Slash SR-1112), is "Shelley's Girlfriend." Hayes' swirling organ, her catchy pop hooks and her brother Kevin's big drum attack make the song's girl talk irresistible. Hayes' advice to her girlfriend is to be skeptical of this guy and straighten out her own life before falling in love. "It's not all that they led us to believe it would be," she sings in a strong voice that balances infectious glee with an uncompromising toughness.
The album's other nine tracks offer similar slumber-party songs with tasty melodic hooks and surprising lyric twists. Produced by Steve Savage, this independent-label album presents an appealing quartet as a prospective equal to the Go-Go's in the growing genre of girls/talk/rock. Bonnie Hayes & Wild Combo perform Saturday at the 9:30 club.