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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.
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.
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
Consumer Notes. We
Three Kings (top, left) was originally issued in 1990 by MCA
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]
- Angels We Have Heard On High
- Christmas Passing Through
- Good King Wenceslas
- Star Of Wonder
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