Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Suzzy and Maggie Roche

Why the Long Face

Red House Records

With the ethereal harmonies only siblings seem to be capable of producing, Suzzy and Maggie Roche have issued a CD that commands attentive listening.

“Why the Long Face” is the second disc on Red House for these sisters singing as a duo. Originally from New Jersey, they trace their musical lineage back to a trio with sister Terre that was the toast of New York in the late 1970s.

Influenced by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and Paul Simon — for whom the Roches sang backup on “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” — the three sisters have issued about a dozen albums together over the years.

In “Why the Long Face,” Suzzy and Maggie Roche combine their unearthly voices into compelling arrangements. The disc closes with a cover of “A Day in the Life of a Tree,” co-written by the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and Jack Rieley, which cleverly incorporates the sounds of birds corresponding to the lines of the song, “For years my limbs stretched to the sky, a nest for birds to sit and sing.”

Suzzy Roche also incorporated words from other sources — “Training Wheels” comes from a poem written by high school student Jon Turner, who has Asperger’s syndrome. Mary Gordon penned a prayer, “For Those Whose Work Is Invisible,” that offers tongue-in-cheek appreciation “for scholars whose research leads to no obvious discovery; for dentists who polish each gold surface of the fillings of upper molars.”

Black American poet Jessie Fauset (1882-1961), part of the Harlem Renaissance and literary editor of Crisis, provided the elegant poem Maggie Roche put to music in “La Vie C’est La Vie”: “On summer afternoons I sit quiescent by you in the park, and idly watch the sunbeams gild and tint the ash trees’ bark.”

The disc opens with a snappy pop song from Mark Johnson, “I Don’t Have You.”

As remarkable as these songs are in their breadth, the Roche sisters offer some literary and harmonic convolutions of their own. In “Who Cares,” Suzzy Roche observes political strife and division and finds parallels within her own life: “So I look into my own angry heart/the violent world of my misdeeds and my mistakes/my old messy heartbreaks and fantastic fakes/the good intentions paved in gold/another war story gets told.”

Suzzy Roche also offers some wry humor in her song “The Long Lonely Road to Nowhere,” which takes the book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” as its theme. With 10 million copies sold, she sings, “I guess the guy who wrote it has his share of personal change.” The track hints of old R&B music with its descending piano and Hammond B3 organ chords leading to the chorus.

Maggie Roche wrote two of the songs and co-wrote another with her sister. In “One Season,” her wordplay about the growth and endurance of a relationship begins centered around trees: “One season I was born/fell down like an acorn/I am the only tree/and everybody leaves.”

“I’ve got to get away from you,” she sings. “I’ve got to find a love that’s true.”

When the lyric delves into personal disharmony, the voices also shift into discord: “We go on arguing/no one can say a thing.” Then the melody is restored in the next verse. The early, resolute “I’ve got to get away from you” becomes, “I’ve got to get away from you/If only for a day or two.”

In “Broken Places,” she sings: “You dreamed of me and now I’m/searching for myself in strangers’ faces/stumbling onto further broken places.”

Stewart Lerman and Suzzy Roche produced the disc, keeping the instrumentation spare. That directs the listener to the voices in harmony. It’s wise, because the Roche sisters still have a lot to say.

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