Nick stipulated ‘no white dudes’ when he set Graham’s theme for him and as the record club crew were leaving my house, my mind had already begun sifting through the possibilities. Almost committing to numerous options – Prince, Smokey, Marley’s Rastaman Vibration…another Al Green album just to wind Graham up…I found myself gravitating, at the eleventh hour, to The Roches self-titled debut album, attracted by the bizarrely magical musical delights contained within as much as its adherence to Nick’s diversity agenda (do we bother with diversity anymore now that we have gained glorious independence from the tyranny of Europe?). It was surprisingly difficult to find records that fitted exactly to Nick’s criteria anyway…these white dudes have a habit of cropping up all over the place…but I contented myself with the knowledge that at least my chosen band had white dudes in the minority, most of the time, and that they probably didn’t really need them at all (although Fripp does play a blinder on the breathtaking Hammond Song and, presumably, twiddled the production knobs with aplomb).
Another jewel exposed by The Spin Guide to Alternative Music (still not returned…whoever has borrowed it, please can I have it back!), I can remember feeling distinctly sceptical as I held The Roches debut in my hands in the record shop pondering whether to purchase an album that looks this bad – could it really reward the trust I was placing on one music journalist’s opinion? As covers go, it’s pretty atrocious and in failing light and with a bit of a squint, you could be looking at a Nolan Sisters record sleeve. The sisters look too self-consciously wacky, their mannered poses smacking of coffee shop kookiness and hinting at bad jokes, syrupy vocals and fey arrangements.
Turns out, that’s not far from the truth.
It also turns out that you do not have to be too far from that truth for the shit to turn to diamonds. Turn the ‘quaint’ dial around a notch and what could so easily be cloyingly unpalatable transforms into a thing of beauteous splendour, the use of humour veering from embarrassing to effecting. The Roches, on their debut album at least, are something to cross the road to rather than from!
A record of two halves, the first side of the platter fluctuates from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again with the aforementioned Hammond Song shining out like a towering beacon amongst the four other tracks – songs such as Mr Sellack and Damned Old Dog sail perilously close to the line of kooky but, to my mind, get away with it through a combination of charm and restraint. The final track on side one, The Troubles, raises the stakes – the sisters pondering as to whether their lives will be in greater danger whilst visiting the emerald isle as a result of the IRA’s firearms or the posited dearth of health food shops in Dublin! They get away with it…but God only knows how! But for an insight of just how incredible this album is, listen to the first two tracks back-to-back. The introductory opener We seguing into Hammond Song might be one of the most startling transitions in my record collection as the (frankly bizarre) chipmunk like sped up vocals at the end of We merge into the exquisite, close harmonies of Hammond Song. What follows is six minutes of bliss, chord changes to die for, a guitar solo from the gods and some of the sweetest singing ever committed to vinyl. It’s tempting to wish for the other tracks on side one to be more similar to Hammond Song but, on reflection, that would only serve to dilute the experience….a perfect palm fringed beach feels a lot more special if it’s the only one around!
That said, there are other moments of Hammond Song-like beauty scattered through the album and side two is much more consistent in tone and atmosphere, most tracks managing to amalgamate the aesthetically pleasing and the weird to form five cuts of the very finest female urban acoustic folk singer songwriter fare. Separating out the two halves, I’d take the second side every time (despite Hammond Song being elsewhere), but really they are intractable and, together, they form one of the more surprisingly captivating albums I own.
Rob listened: Loved it! Tom’s right about the delicate, wobbly balance between twee/kooky and funny/charming and also about the mercurial way in which the Roches walk the line. Some heartstopping songs and some that are laugh out loud funny for reasons that aren’t immediately explicable. Reminded me of Kimya Dawson, but without the artifice and the Be Good Tanyas without the weight of historical reenactment. Loved it.