Symphony of a City
Hard to figure why Suzzy Roche's voice still sounds so unfamiliar on its own. After all, her rangy chirp hasn't been cushioned between the apparently weightless soprano of sister Terre and the grounded alto of sister Maggie for five years now, at least on disc, ever since the Roches disbanded after two decades together. And Suzzy's new album, Songs From an Unmarried Housewife and Mother, Greenwich Village, USA, isn't even Suzzy's solo debut: It's her second work on the valiant St. Paul folk label Red House. Yet the sense of play she brought to the Roches, always bobbled in buoyant harmony between her older sisters, now sounds precarious without them.
That voice hardly seems frail or wobbly, but it does seem exposed and somewhat vulnerable. It retains an almost girlish brightness of tone--though Roche never tries to mask her 43 years with an affected naiveté. The resulting sparseness gives the music an intimacy that Roche makes the most of, kicking off her new album with an all-American, childlike reverie--one foisted upon most of us when we were kids--as if to deliberately begin at the beginning.
The words she sings are almost unbearably familiar: "Yankee Doodle went to town/Riding on a pony..." (like I have to quote more). Except for "This Land Is Your Land," no other American folk anthem is as tainted by memories of compulsory grade school chorus. And except for "This Land Is Your Land," no anthem is so ingrained in the mythology of American populist art. In the 19th Century, working-class crowds would interrupt performances of Twelfth Night or The Barber of Seville and demand a chorus or two of "Yankee Doodle." If ignored, they'd rip out the seats indignantly.
If appeased, on the other hand, they'd rip out the seats in celebration.
Though hardly stodgy or aristocratic, Roche brings a breezy sensibility to the song, coming off as far removed from such prole anarchy. Referring to the sleeve photo of the Roches' self-titled classic debut, where the three sisters are mugging ridiculously stylized gazes at one another, a friend of mine remarked that the Roches must have grown up in "a whole Montessori neighborhood." In actuality, the sisters grew up in "deepest New Jersey" (as they put it on their debut), inside the commuter suburb of Park Ridge. But their unconventional heredity shows: Mom and Dad met while acting in a play in Buffalo, eloped to Greenwich Village, then outgrew bohemia when it was time for a family.
"They never really did belong in the suburbs," says Roche, speaking over the phone from the Village apartment she has lived in for more than a decade. "He taught people how to speak," she adds. "How to go to job interviews, and how to talk to other people, and just to have the confidence to do that." To be precise, Jack Roche taught elocution and rhetoric to an aspirant, often immigrant, working class. When he died in 1995, Suzzy took the opportunity to eulogize him on Holy Smokes, her understated yet moving solo debut.
On the new album, the paternal influence is expressed more subtly: Just as her father did in his profession, Roche approaches language as a malleable, material object--fit to be manipulated, true, but also to be enjoyed and savored like any possession. These 12 songs are about stuff. In "To Alaska With Love," for instance, Roche describes a "true love" situation as follows: "Theirs is a real thing/A dish in the sink." It's as solid a plank of poesy as William Carlos Williams could have asked for. Not that any misguided fealty to realism holds Roche's imagination in check. She's also capable of the fantastic: "Her arms grow/Like pipe cleaners with rubber bands inside/Only prettier." There may be no ideas in things, but the language used to relay those ideas is, after all, a thing.
Roche's close attention to the concrete is reflected in Unmarried Housewife's title. "I've realized that the place where I find the meaning in my life is around ordinary chores and day-to-day living," she explains. "What I've been doing all these years is raising a child and cleaning the toilets and making the beds. That's the stuff of everyday life, and that's what makes it great. Well, I don't know about the toilets. Though thank God for whoever invented them."
What makes Roche's homey song cycle so relevant to the here and now is this: In an age when urban design is a code for the construction of glittery tourist traps, this music lets you imagine cities--and New York City in particular--as actual places where people live, eat, fall in love, and do laundry. The dreamlike escape of the Village that floated before the eyes of the Roches back when they were Jersey suburbanites is long gone; in conversation, Roche discusses projects that imply perpetual, practical busyness. She's currently writing a song based on a Sam Shepard monologue, for example, which may grow into an interactive project examining the practice of prayer.
Rockers have always groused about folk's "domestication" of a masculine restlessness that comes from electrified rebellion. In response, the worst sort of pseudo-folkies--a genteel tradition that yawns from James Taylor to Jewel--have linked acoustic guitars to self-indulgent confessions, disguising the clichéd results as "self-expression." By contrast, Roche, like the best urban acoustic songwriters before her (Loudon Wainwright III to Amy Rigby) insists that a city can contain rock 'n' roll's restlessness without neutralizing it, providing space for even the middle-aged and comparatively rooted to flex their adventurous side--especially when the road no longer offers an answer. "Some people gotta roam the earth/Never really fitting in," Roche muses on "Sweetie Pie," the album's closing track. "A stranger to the very chair they're sitting in."
Beginning with an old song as distant from our lives as it is embedded in our prepubescent psyches, Roche ends with an infantile term of endearment that suggests that what we call our lovers is as important as anything else. Between the two, a tone of wonder pervades the album, a wonder stretched beyond merely a sense of childhood recalled. It marks something more: a re-enchantment with the world, as simple as finding the beauty in "Yankee Doodle."
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