You can’t kill the Roches

Call this one “The Return of the Roches” — and mark your calendars.

Indeed, not only are the Roche sisters — Maggie and Terre and Suzzy — out on the road again as a trio for the first time in almost a decade (they come to the Orange Peel on Thursday), but they’re also recording a new disc, slated for a December/January release.

For the folk-pop intelligentsia of a certain vintage, this is big news. When the Roches called it quits as a trio in ’97, they left a big hole in the modern-folk-pop scene — because there was nothing else in the folk-pop realm quite like the Roches’ quirky sonic humor and intricate, sometimes dissonant three-part harmonies.

Indeed, it was their playful but innovative use of dissonance, perhaps more than any other factor, that set them apart from their peers. The Roches’ penchant for minor-key melodies and harmonics could tug at your ear, make you wince, break your heart or coax a smile — sometimes all at once.

Ironically, the complexity of those harmonies is one of the reasons the Roches fragmented in ’97.

“Working out the kind of harmonies we use is very time-consuming, between writing them and learning them and rehearsing them,” says Suzzy Roche, the multi-talented youngest sister who delivers most of the droll comic banter on stage.

“A lot of people probably wouldn’t want to put that much time in,” she explains. “It was such a big commitment that we didn’t have time to do anything else. So, when we broke up the trio, we all got these lives, and found other things we liked to do, and it’s been great to sort of deconstruct the last several years.” Suzzy has probably been the most professionally active of the three — she released a pair of solo discs in ’97 and 2000 and a pair of duet records with Maggie in ’02 and ’04 (all on the Red House label), and toured and recorded an album with the Four Bitchin’ Babes. She’s also been active in the Wooster Group, an avant-garde theater troupe. Meanwhile, Terre formed a new group — the amusingly dubbed Terre Roche and the Moodswings — and released a solo album in 1998.

To understand the Roche fervor that still exists among the brainy, irreverent wing of the Folk-Rock Party, it’s useful to travel back to 1979 and revisit their self-titled debut album, a brilliant, innovative disc that caused a big sensation on the avant-folk scene — and not just in their Greenwich Village stomping grounds. King Crimson’s Robert Fripp produced the disc, and was wise enough to let the girls create spare, ambient musical backdrops — which he dubbed “audio verite” — leaving plenty of space for the Roches’ tricky harmonies and clever arrangements.

The emotional range of the songs was just as ambitious. Suzzy’s deadpan humor was evident on “The Train,” in which she described herself, her guitar, her bag, her “sugar-free drink” and the portly guy next to her as “overflowing out the seats.”

“I am miserable and he is miserable … He’s even drinking two beers … I want to ask him what’s his name / But I can’t / Cause I’m so afraid / Of the man on the traaaaain,” sang the girls, simultaneously conjuring laughter and poignancy. Maggie’s “Hammond Song” was a pitch-perfect set piece on family conflict and unmet expectations, and “The Married Men” managed to convey both black humor and wounded resignation. (“All of that time in hell to spend / For kissing the married men.”) And, of course, deftly constructed tracks like “We” and “The Troubles” allowed the girls to show off the intricacy of their harmonic gifts and savvy songcraft, with their voices doing giddy cartwheels and backflips around each other to delightful effect.

Their follow-up, Nurds, recruited members of Television and the Patti Smith Group to give it an edgier, art-pop feel, and the Fripp-produced Keep On Doing (’82) reprised the droll wit, ambient charm and deadpan and/or playful song structures of their debut. Speak, from ’89, recaptured many of those qualities, and is also a keeper. But the major-label experience was not an entirely happy one for the Roches, who often found themselves under pressure from the record companies to make music that was more accessible to the masses. By ’95, the toll of trying to create original, complex music while battling with the labels was subliminally evident in the title of their final group release: Can We Go Home Now?

Go gray

The trio first reunited briefly in 2004, for a John Kerry benefit concert.

“We had a lot of fun doing that, so we got together again last December for some holiday concerts, and those were fun, too,” says Roche. “So, having been through this deconstruction period, we all felt energized enough to give it a go again.”

Roche reports that, on the new album, “we’re really interested in using the six elements — our three voices and three instruments [two guitars and a keyboard]. We’re really trying to work within that structure, and focus as much as we can on just those six elements. As usual, it doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve ever heard before,” she says with a laugh. “It sounds pretty original.”

The same could be said of their early work, which seemed to be without a direct harmonic antecedent, except maybe that it was a gleefully perverse distillation of the girl-group sounds of the early ’60s. “No, we really weren’t aware of the girl groups until later,” she counters. “Being from a New Jersey town where there wasn’t much culture, we weren’t exposed to much. But I do remember listening to the Four Seasons and the Beatles a lot.

“But with us, we weren’t in love with the Beatles — we wanted to be the Beatles.”

When the group split in ’97, some long-time Roche fans wondered if it was due to some sort of family spat or sibling tension.

“Oh, there’s always been sibling tension,” says Roche with a laugh. “Remember, we’ve worked together for most of our adult lives, and a lot of people would be horrified to be in that proximity to their siblings for that long. And we’re touchy, high-energy, high-strung people. We’re in our 50s, and we’re still dealing with early-childhood dynamics. It’s pretty intense, and I think you can hear that in the music.”

Since the Roche sisters have mostly kept a low profile for the last 10 years, old fans who come out to their current show might be in for a surprise. Maggie’s hair (she’s the eldest) is now completely gray. With an age range of 50 to 55, the Roche sisters obviously no longer look like the hip, sassy art-school chicks they resembled on their early album covers — just as their long-time fans no longer look like they did 27 years ago, when they first discovered these three witty Roches.

“Yeah, it’s great that there’s this moment when we first walk out on stage, and we can hear people thinking, ‘Wow, look what happened to them,'” says Roche with a sly laugh. “I think it’s good that people can come to our shows and see that it’s okay to age gracefully. I think this generation is in shock that we got older — it’s like we didn’t think it would happen to us.”

[Writer and critic Kevin Ransom first wrote about the Roches in 1990. He can be reached at kevinransom@hotmail.com.]


The Roches perform at the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Thursday, July 13. 8:30 p.m. $25. 225-5851.

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