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The RochesRock critic Robert Christgau uses the term "semi-popular" to describe artists like The Roches. That is, they create their music within a popular idiom - folk, in this case - but they do not conceive their art for popular tastes, let alone mass consumption. Hailing from the mean streets of Greenwich Village, the Roches are a trio of sisters - Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy (rhymes with fuzzy) - who sing the oddest folk music I've ever heard. Supported on their early records by Robert Fripp (Roches, 1979) and a band of trendy New York rockers (Nurds, 1980), the Roches wound up sounding more like Devo than Bob Dylan - to my young ears, at least. Still, no matter how their band played, the focus always remained on the sisters' unusual voices: Maggie's intimidating baritone, Terre's vulnerable soprano, and Suzzy's acrobatic alto, blending together in a way only sisters can achieve.

Over the course of their next several albums, however, the Roches settled down considerably, adopting languid tempos and generic, synthesized pop instrumentation. Though still "semi-popular" by design, the Roches grew a lot less quirky, and I eventually lost interest. The group released their Christmas album, We Three Kings (1990), well after that.

I was poking around the internet doing a little background research for this piece, when I came across a reviewer defending We Three Kings. He stated that "the sisters fend off many of their precious quirks," making the CD better than one might expect. Well, in my mind, it's the lack of quirks that plagues the album. By dialing back on what makes them unique, the Roches make their skewed harmonies and esoteric song selection seem simply strange, rather than strangely entertaining.

The RochesThat said, We Three Kings is a Christmas album of some distinction, sure to please those seeking something outside the realm of the Bing and Brenda and the usual holiday palaver. The Roches got their start singing Christmas carols, something they still do each year to raise money for charity. Thus, they had a staggering cache of songs to call upon when recording We Three Kings. Running 24 tracks - many of them a cappella - it can be a challenging listen, if only due to listener fatigue.

What helps keep boredom at bay, however, is the breadth of the Roches' repertoire and their relentlessly unconventional vocal arrangements - the same things that may be off-putting to listeners expecting an old-fashioned sing-along. The Roches, for instance, think nothing of juxtaposing a streetwise "Frosty The Snowman" with a straightforward "For Unto Us A Child Is Born" from Handel's Messiah - the latter being something of a sequel to the trio's (in)famous "Hallelujah Chorus" (from Keep On Doing, 1982).

So few tracks have instrumentation that the ones that do tend to stand out - "Good King Wenceslas," in particular, really shines. The Roches' over-reliance on electronic instruments, however, overwhelms others. "We Three Kings," for instance, is given an adventurous Latin arrangement, but the synthesizers make it sound like a reject from the Miami Vice soundtrack.

Ultimately , though, it's the original compositions (all two of them) that redeem We Three Kings. Terre's "Star Of Wonder" and, especially, Suzzy's "Christmas Passing Through" are lovely, touching songs that belie traces of cynicism found throughout the rest of the album. The Roches, you see, are wry and reserved where they were once wide-eyed, restless, passionate, and and occasionally unhinged. The end result is certainly a Christmas album with a difference - it's just not different enough.

Consumer Notes. We Three Kings (top, left) was originally issued in 1990 by MCA Records during the Roches' brief tenure there. In 1994, while they were under contract with Rykodisc, that label reissued We Three Kings with a new cover (above, right). Other than the artwork, there is very little difference between the two editions. And by the way, the Roches also placed a tracks on Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1989), Christmas At Mountain Stage (1994), and Christmas On The Lam and Other Songs From The Season (2016). [top of page]

Albums Albums


  • Angels We Have Heard On High
  • Christmas Passing Through
  • Good King Wenceslas
  • Star Of Wonder

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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