Saturday, July 26, 2014

LP of the Week - "The Roches" (1979)

Just as a reminder, the posts in this category are about an album that I own only on vinyl.

"The Roches" was a subject of disagreement from the time it was released in 1979.  On the plus side, Christgau gave it an "A," and it finished 11th in that year's Pazz & Jop Poll (right between Donna Summer and Dave Edmunds).  On the negative side, Greil Marcus panned the album in a pretty aggressive way, and if memory serves chalked its critical success up to New York critics.  Which is probably true; the three sisters (Maggie, Terre and Suzzy) were born in New Jersey, and if the legend is to be believed, honed their vocal chops singing on NYC street corners, the songs more often than not being Christmas carols.  They're probably best known for "We Three Kings," their 1990 Christmas LP, which if you're interested is one of the greatest pop Christmas albums ever released.  But at least at the time, this record was a pretty big deal, because it sounded so different than anything else being released at the time.

And there's no doubt about it, "The Roches" is a singular album.  I'm not sure that I'd call it great, but it includes three undeniably great songs - "Hammond Song," "Mr. Sellack," and (especially) "Pretty and High."  The vocals throughout are drop-dead perfect, as is the spare instrumentation (the album was produced by Robert Fripp in "audio verite," whatever that means).  The album is most successful (in the form of the three songs above) when it stops being so self-conscious, and focuses on the songs themselves.  There are other songs on the record that are nearly as strong, "The Troubles" and "The Married Men" among them, but on those the sisters (in their writing and singing) are trying to be a little too clever for their own good.  I wonder whether they would seem stronger when performed live; there's clearly an interplay between artist and listener that's being attempted, but it comes across less effectively on vinyl.

And "Pretty and High" - man, what a great song.  The opening is just perfect:

She came on the stage
in a dress like the sky
she had painted a sunset
around her eyes
and all of the people
were charmed and surprised
at how pretty and high and shy she was
pretty and high and shy

As for the ending, well; it's best to just listen all the way through:

"The Roches," 1979.

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