The arguable center of the critically acclaimed but woefully underappreciated New York vocal group, The Roches, was elder sister Maggie Roche, she the subject and focus of a heartfelt tribute CD collection — called Where Do I Come From?
Together with sisters Terre and Suzzy, The Roches created a distinctive body of work in American pop music, blending impossibly tight Northern European style vocal harmonies with sometimes quirky, often poignant and always compelling lyrics and melodies. If you are not getting that, try to imagine if Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares sang fun and often haunting pop folk songs as a vocal power trio and you’ll be in the ballpark. Just listen how they arranged Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” an arrangement which became one of their signature creations. Their first and third albums as a trio were produced by the great Robert Fripp of King Crimson fame (he also appears on those records!).
But really, The Roches‘ story as a group starts well before that in the early 1970s when Paul Simon employed the two eldest sisters on his second album called There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and he later produced the first album by the duo called Seductive Reasoning (released on Columbia Records).
This fine album focuses on Maggie’s writing and notably includes a song which remained a showstopper in the group’s sets even as they ascended to stardom in the 1980s: “West Virginia.” It is a poignant painting stunning in its frankness, yet with a melodicism this side of Carole King and Laura Nyro.
This song is one of many included on Where Do I Come From?, a loving retrospective produced by Suzzy Roche in tribute to her sister Maggie who passed away earlier this year. A fine and sobering remembrance of an artist who perhaps never really got her due beyond the recognition of loyal fans and other music insiders. This collection includes several songs from the Fripp-produced Roches albums including signature epics like Hammond Song and Losing True , songs which to this day remain remarkable to my ear every time I listen to them (which is actually fairly often).
The collection also includes “No Trespassing” from an overlooked EP that was issued by Rhino Records in the early 90s as well as a couple from their sole release for Rykodisc, Can We Go Home Now.
This album also serves to give us an opportunity to reconsider tracks from some of their big label productions which some of us (i.e. me) may have not spent enough time with back in the day. Their albums on MCA records (Dove and Speak) kind of came and went for me (it was a busy transitional time of my life), yet there are some really nice songs in there including the single “Big Nuthin'” which I just learend that they even made into a music video! I really like the song “Speak” which I’d all but forgotten about and “Cloud Dancing” is a gorgeous near lullabye, with compositional echoes of The Roches’ work with Philip Glass.
There is a lovely version of “One Season” featuring Maggie’s lead vocal, apparently re-recorded for the Why The Long Face album as she was not happy with the original from The Roches second album, Nurds. Its an amazing and pretty folk song, with the always-stunning intentionally off-key moments of dissonance (try singing like that, its not easy!). If you have Tidal, you can hear the original version of that song by clicking here. Actually, many of The Roches albums — and Maggie’s compositions — are streaming up on Tidal in CD quality. You can get to their Robert Fripp-produced Warner Brothers trio debut by clicking here and their third album is there as well.
Another reason you will want to get the CD of Where Do I Come From is that you’ll also get to hear four unreleased demos and studio recordings by Maggie. Roches fans should pick up this collection even if you have everything else. The title track is a previously unreleased home recording which Suzzy Roche found among Maggie’s things after she passed away (there is a haunting video up featuring the track). She says it is likely the last song Maggie wrote, so its especially powerful coming at the end of this collection.
Wow… I’m feeling just so much of the bittersweet right now as I write this. There is so much joy and heartbreak across many of Maggie Roche’s songs; you really get that sense as you listen to this collection end-to-end.
She would’ve gone down in pop music history if “West Virginia” was the only song she ever wrote because it is so powerful. I’ve witnessed crowds in large auditoriums reduced to an absolute pin-drop hush while she performed that song solo at the piano. When you listen to the original studio recording it’s hard to not get swept away in the magnificent lush orchestral arrangement as the tale unfolds before your eyes and tears.
Those of us who are already fans won’t forget Maggie. Those of you who are new to her music should check out her work with her sisters in The Roches. This tribute collection is a good place to start especially for considering the more serious side of what The Roches were all about. There is a lovely tribute to her in The New York Times which you can read here.
Rest in peace Maggie.
You are not forgotten.
You are loved.