Maggie (Margaret A.) Roche, one of the most original of America's female songwriters, was at the centre of the feisty, much-admired New Jersey trio The Roches, which she created with her younger sisters Terre and Suzzy in the late-1970s (following a few years working in a duo with Terre, a teaming which had begun auspiciously with singing backing vocals on Paul Simon's There Goes Rhymin' Simon LP!).
Tragically, Maggie died of cancer in 2017, and Suzzy has lovingly compiled this two-disc set of her compositions, performed mostly by the very trio whose signature sound she can be credited as having fashioned. This sound involved original, and quite special, three-part harmony arrangements that were custom-built from the sisters' distinctive individual voices, within which Maggie invariably provided the low alto part. The truly extraordinary things about The Roches' sound was that while each sister projected a sharply differing personality, their voices blended together seamlessly and inextricably - and at the same time were also capable of creatively and naturally diverging, as light refracted from a prism, giving the individual lines (vocal light-beams) their own kind of distance. Moreover, Maggie's songs entirely matched the collective musical personality of the sisters, being at once quirky and often wickedly funny, yet also sensitive and heartfelt in character; they often also took delightfully unexpected and stimulating melodic turns in their quest to express their contradictory emotional states.
Where Do I Come From, though subtitled Selected Songs, spans Maggie's entire music career, from a couple of unreleased demos preceding her 1975 duo album with Terre (Seductive Reasoning) right through the close-on-20-year tally of Roches trio albums, then her 2002 and 2004 duo albums with Suzzy (Zero Church and Why The Long Face) and the final trio album (2007's Moonswept). Inevitably, the distribution of tracks among the various albums is erratic (there's four of the finest tracks from that crucial, eponymous debut album, but only a sporadic selection from the next few records until we reach the half-a-dozen tracks from 1989's Speak) and three from 1995's Can We Go Home Now (hey, they do seem to like their album titles without question-marks don't they?). It's interesting how although the Roches' songs and performance style were defiantly original and maverick, often determinedly out of kilter with what was going on around the contemporary music scenes, the musical backdrops on their various albums rather more closely mirrored the status-quo as regards contemporaneous musical trends - the first two albums embraced experimental new-folk "Frippery" and then after a more acoustic interlude (Keep On Doing) became heavily reliant on often bland and unsatisfying (and to my mind somewhat tacky) synth textures and 80s electronica (from No Trespassing through to Speak), and gradually returning to a modicum of acoustic-based normality for the latter decades. During which time, too, the more acerbic side of the trio's harmonies was more underplayed although, as can be heard on the deceptively straightforward A Dove, not completely without a certain "bite". Can We Go Home Now probably furnished the most plausible balance of elements within the production.
I realise this compilation necessarily concentrates on Maggie's compositions, but many Roches fans will recall the trio's imaginative, fun arrangement of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus and may express surprise at its omission - in the context that after all Maggie's voice was also such an integral part of the trio "sensation". But that's a minor point, for Where Do I Come From is a most worthwhile compilation in every respect (and not least since a majority of the individual Roches albums remain long out of print. The many facets to Maggie's songwriting, in tandem with her expressive, if at times mysterious brand of compassion, are well illustrated through the course of the set's 2¼ hours, and I can almost guarantee even the acknowledged Roches fans will make at least a discovery and a reassessment.
Importantly too, the set contains four previously unreleased recordings. Two tracks provide snapshots of the early Maggie presenting a bold face to the world: early composition Stayin' Home is an unpretentious 1972 solo demo, whereas the extended Down The Dream is an intensely valuable live studio demo from the following year. Christmas Love is a song of Maggie's which was written just too late for inclusion on the trio's 1990 seasonal album We Three Kings but was only last year recorded by Suzzy Roche, her daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche, Suzzy's brother Dave and his daughter Oona with experimental vocalist Daisy Press. The final track, which gives the compilation its title, is the most special of all - for all that it's barely two minutes long, and in lo-fi vox-and-guitar mode. Maggie's very last solo recording, believed to be the last song she wrote, and found on a cassette among her possessions after she died. Its topical subject matter - the displacement of refugees - can be taken also as a reflection of Maggie's own feeling of being displaced from her own life, and is thus all the more poignant.
It's salutary to recall that Robert Fripp once told the Roche sisters when he produced their eponymous first LP in 1979, "You will never be hugely successful, but you will influence many people coming after you." How very true.
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