Suzzy Roche: Songs from an Unmarried Housewife and Mother, Greenwich
by George Graham
(Red House RHR 136 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/10/2000)
The Roche Sisters have been a staple on the folk and singer-songwriter scene since the 1970s, when two of the New Jersey-born sisters, Maggie and Terre recorded their first album, produced by Paul Simon. The youngest sister Suzzy soon became part of the act for a recording they did of Christmas carols, which has become a classic. Since then, Suzzy has assumed the role of front-person in performance, providing a distinctive presence, further enhanced by her work as an actress. Over the years, the Roches have made about 10 albums together, working with such people as King Crimson's Robert Fripp as producer, and often finding themselves on various critics' "best of the year" lists. The Roches' distinctive sibling harmonies and thoughtful, intriguing songwriting, have captivated a lot of audiences over the years.
Though the family act has not broken up, Suzzy Roche is out with her second solo album, bearing the unwieldy title Songs from an Unmarried Housewife and Mother, Greenwich Village, USA. And in the Roches' tradition it's a pleasing collection of songs that are often bittersweet in their lyrics. Her angelic voice can sometimes belie the emotions expressed in the songs, but like the best of the "confessional" songwriters, Ms. Roche can take the seemingly personal stories and make them more widely relevant. She also draws on songs of a similar mood written by family and friends, including sister Maggie Roche and Jules Shear, who has often worked with the Roches.
The mostly acoustic instrumentation for this CD is very tasteful and features many of the same players who were on her debut solo album, Holy Smokes released in 1997, including producer Stewart Lerman, acoustic bassist Paul Ossola, fiddler David Mansfield, and drummer Sammy Merendino. They are joined on the new album by guest vocalists including sister Maggie Roche and a further sister, Lucy, along with Loudon Wainwright and Jules Shear.
Some albums try to make big statements, or at least be loud enough that they seem that way. Songs from an Unmarried Housewife is just the opposite. Mostly laid-back in its instrumentation and sound, the songs are distinctly personal in nature, pondering relationships and the small incidents between people, from which one can draw larger inferences. The spare musical arrangements and relaxed sound of Ms. Roche's vocals give this CD a quiet, even diminutive quality.
Things get under way with an unexpected choice for a cover song, Yankee Doodle, to which Ms. Roche provides a distinctly new light -- including a chance to hear the full lyrics. The harmonies are all sung by Suzzy Roche. <<>>
That leads into Looking For God, an interesting set of musings, with a hint of country influence from the steel guitar and Dobro. <<>>
The composition by Maggie Roche is called G Chord Song which is a piece about writing a song. Lucy Roche does the harmonies on this excellent performance by everyone. <<>>
One of my favorite tracks is called No Such Thing As Love, a musical vignette about two lonely people on a train who are attracted to each other, but neither is apparently ready for a relationship yet. <<>>
Another especially charming track is Out of the Blue, which is given a smoky jazz setting. The piece's adroit lyric writing goes in quite a different direction than the title would imply. <<>>
The Jules Shear song on Unmarried Housewife is Cold Hard Wind, whose performance here is given a countryish sound. Shear and Loudon Wainwright, Ms. Roche's former brother-in-law provide the backing vocals, in this great piece of writing. <<>>
The most all-out optimistic song on the album is the charming Love Comes to Town, which celebrates the phenomenon of love at first sight. <<>>
Ms. Roche also includes a kind of story song, To Alaska with Love, revolving around a complicated love, or perhaps marital relationship. <<>>
Suzzy and Maggie Roche appear together on Born Yesterday, which seems to be about the supposed thoughts of a newborn. It's another quite disarming song with the added benefit of the famously distinctive Roche harmonies. <<>>
Suzzy Roche's new second solo album Songs from an Unmarried Housewife and Mother, Greenwich Village, USA, is a thoroughly charming recording that features many of the qualities that have made the Roche sisters such favorites among folk fans and music critics. While taking time out from her acting career and occasional get-togethers with her sisters, Suzzy Roche has created a CD that, while it may not set the world on its ear, nevertheless is one that is hard to dislike. For me the relevant word about this CD with the long-winded title, is "small." The songs are generally about the little incidents or common people, the arrangements are intimate and largely acoustic, and even the CD's length, with 12 songs coming in below 39 minutes, implies a work that does not pretend to be an epic. Still, it's a memorable record that you'll find yourself going back to. Ms. Roche's vocals can pull you right in, and the despite the songs' subject matter, they can speak to the larger world.
In terms of sound quality, we'll give this CD an "A minus." It's nicely mixed and the acoustic instrumentation is reproduced well, but the recording comes up a bit short on the issue of dynamic range. The loud moments are not much louder than the soft ones, which is a common problem on pop albums these days.
It's good to know that the Roche Sisters have not called it quits as a musical trio, but during this period of hiatus, Suzzy Roche has created a beguiling album that captures many of the qualities of the sibling trio, and provides a good helping of fine new songs.
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