Album of the Week, August 3: Keep On Doing by the Roches

KeepOnDoingMaggie, Terre, and Suzzy Roche come from “deepest New Jersey” (as they sing on their early autobiographical song We). They began singing together as kids and established a local reputation for their annual caroling. Maggie and Terre headed for New York to pursue music careers. They met Paul Simon, who brought them in to sing backup on his second solo album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. He helped them land a deal with Columbia Records and assisted with their debut disc, Seductive Reasoning. While it showed off Maggie’s stunning lyrical talents and the charming harmonies of her earthy near-baritone and Terre’s enchanting higher register, it went nowhere commercially. They headed to Hammond, Louisiana for a while, but returned north when Suzzy decided to join the family act. They tended bar at Folk City and grabbed stage time when they could. Suzzy’s versatile middle register made the harmonies complete, and they moved to Warner Bros. for their acclaimed eponymous debut, produced by Robert Fripp. Nurds followed soon after. Both discs have great songs — usually written by the Roche sisters in some combination — and amazing vocal work. Ready for their third outing as a trio, they got back together with Fripp for the most cohesive and representative album in their catalog.

Title Keep On Doing
Act The Roches
Label Warner Bros. Release Date June 1982
Producer Robert Fripp
U.S. Chart  183 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. The Hallelujah Chorus
  2. Losing True
  3. Steady With the Maestro
  4. The Largest Elizabeth In the World
  5. On the Road to Fairfax County
  6. I Fell In Love
  7. The Scorpion Lament
  8. Want Not Want Not
  9. Sex Is For Children
  10. Keep On Doing What You Do / Jerks On the Loose

The Roches mix autobiography (Hammond and Folk City show up on other discs, as do a variety of life events including a visit to the laundromat), poignant story songs, elliptical observations, and sharp observations with the occasional brilliant cover. Keep On Doing shows off each of these approaches to great effect, and their writing shines brighter than ever.

Things kick off in brilliantly quirky Roche fashion. Adapting Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus to three-part harmony, they deliver an a cappella performance that shows off their distinctive approach to harmonizing. It’s a bold starting point and a highlight of their work together. Rising from that high, Losing True may be the most beautiful song Maggie ever wrote. With clean, bold blending of voices, it tells a tale of broken love with aching sincerity. What could be maudlin in lesser hands is a triumph.

Steady With the Maestro was written by George Gerdes but could easily have come from a Roche pen. An odd tale of love, betrayal, and the perils of talent, it’s a dark gem, delivered flawlessly. Terre’s Largest Elizabeth In the World lightens the mood with a look at body image that manages to be seriously reflective and bitingly tongue-in-cheek all at once. On the Road to Fairfax County is a David Massengill ballad that could be an old English folk song. The sisters treat it with the respect and charm it deserves, again mining familiar emotions with distinctive power.

I Fell In Love is an odd tale of unexpected romance, nicely narrated. The vocal gymnastics serve to underscore the unexpected arrival of deep feelings and work well with the lyrics, showing off a more playful side of the family act. The Scorpion Lament is another Maggie classic, a dark tale of mystery that resonates with emotional power. Its meaning is intentionally unclear, but the playing and singing are so evocative that the  cryptic narrative works perfectly. Want Not Want Not is an arrogant chant with underpinnings of insecurity. A finely crafted slice of modern anxiety and determination, it demonstrates the power of the Roches in unified voice.

Terre’s Sex Is For Children is the weakest link on the disc. Presented as a nursery rhyme singalong, it works well enough, but doesn’t hold up as well as the rest of the album. Fortunately, the Roches pulled out all the stops for the last track. Keep On Doing / Jerks On the Loose is a joyous romp, interweaving a declaration of independence with a refusal to put up with naysayers. Quirky, witty, spunky, and musically ambitious, it’s a perfect presentation of all that is best with this singing family.

FURTHER LISTENING: Over the course of almost 30 years, the Roches released ten strong, distinctive albums including one children’s disc and one Christmas album. The results are varied, and the tendency of later work to rely on synthesizers and quieter songs takes some getting used to, but every album is worthwhile. In addition to Seductive Reasoning, the family released eight other albums as solo or various duo/group acts with more varied results. The best of these is Suzzy’s Songs From an Unmarried Mother…, which includes contributions from other family members. Of the work of the main trio, the best albums are the debut The Roches, which is highly recommended, and Speak, the most consistent of their later albums.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

2 Responses to Album of the Week, August 3: Keep On Doing by the Roches

  1. matusla says:

    Can anyone tell me who the electric guitar player is on the studo version of ” The Road To Farfax County” ?

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