Storytelling in Song: Maggie Roche

No one can harmonize the way siblings do. And, aside from the Wilson Brothers, no siblings harmonize as well as the Roche sisters do.

I’ve had the experience, a couple of times, of mentioning The Roches to people and being met with a blank stare. This is a shame, because sisters Maggie, Terre and Suzzy Roche have been putting out, for the most part, very good albums (with great songs on each) for decades. Sometimes, as in the case of their eponymous The Roches (with spare, elegant production from Robert Fripp) and Speak, they’ve put out great albums.

All three are strong songwriters and lyricists. But of the three women’s output, Maggie’s songs are the ones that haunt me. I don’t even need to look up the credit, usually. I know which ones are hers; they’re that distinctive. She delivers them with a contralto too (kind of a female baritone), which makes them even more striking. Maggie’s lyrics tell tales of heartbreak, obsession, longing and regret. Mixed in is a kind of doleful whimsy. Who else could write an eight-and-a-half-minute song about finding the perfect winter coat? And make it work? No one other than Maggie Roche.

can’t there be a
little breather?
our love is a
real seether
to sore hearts we plead our hapless cases
rendezvousing at the broken places
I love you for
all of this
struggling towards
when the chips are down we play our aces
hiding them in our broken places
– “Broken Places”

I remember the night I went to the store
fighting my way across the cloak-stuffed floor
suffocating I was it seemed
when from a rack this last hope beamed
of all my requirements I pursued the trail
to find furthermore the damn thing was on sale
it had a small chain at the back of the neck
so you could hang it on a hook but it broke what the heck
with the end of each sleeve I’m totally smitten
ample space for to emerge a thick mitten
– “My Winter Coat”

If you go down to Hammond
you’ll never come back
In my opinion you’re
on the wrong track
We’ll always love you but
that’s not the point
– “Hammond Song”

Limpin’ around in the moonlight
coverin’ up what I did
words decompose all around me
nuisances I committed
Do I wanna be a dog
cut the heat out of me
if I was a damned old dog
I wouldn’t have to goddamn human be
– “Damned Old Dog”

Even as you are leaning
into that glass of wine
you and beloved business
have come to the end of a line
come to the end of a line
All of the gates are open
all of the charges dropped
talks are terminated
payments have been stopped
payments have been stopped
– “Quitting Time”

because you’re makin’ it
with the apple in me
I’ve cooked this goose before
and I have had it with the devil
he was as stiff as he was bored
This feminine position
tripped up with reptile
into that most feminine position
too fat to turnstile
– “This Feminine Position”

Listen: Broken Places

Listen: This Feminine Position


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