- October 26, 2020
- Henry Carrigan
- Hear It First
by Henry Carrigan (@henry.carrigan), Folk Alley
From the guitar strums and exalted vocals of the title track—which opens the album—to the fading notes of the closer, I Can Still Hear You by Suzzy Roche and Lucy Wainwright Roche wraps us warmly in its lush vocal harmonies, its magical lyrics, and its ethereal musical atmosphere. Listening to this album is a bit like walking into a forest and being surrounded by sounds that beckon us with their beauty, leading us deeper and deeper into our soul’s dwelling place. The sonic structure of each song both comforts us and carries us out of ourselves, at least momentarily, flowing along cascading rivers of sound.
I Can Still Hear You is the duo’s third album—following Fairytale and Myth (2013) and Mud & Apples (2018)—and as on the others the tendrils of the duo’s vocals wrap their way lovingly around each other, slowly circling closer and closer as they wrap us, too, in layers of beauty. The album grows out of personal loss and social upheaval, and almost didn’t happen. The duo had gone to Nashville to make the album in the spring, and they were about a week into making the album when the pandemic hit, forcing them to return to respective homes in Manhattan (Suzzy) and Brooklyn (Lucy). Suzzy admits that “so many times, I felt like giving up, but thanks to Lucy, Jordan, Helen Vaskevitch (assistant engineer) and Stewart Lerman (who wound up mixing the record) and Dick Connette (StorySound Records) we all kept going.” It’s our fortune that Suzzy and Lucy have given us this gift during these days for, even in its darkest moments, it’s a beacon for us.
Spare guitar strums open the title track, laying the foundation for Lucy’s lead vocal and swelling into a choral round of the duo’s harmonies floating over a musical pattern that lays layer upon layers of gorgeous sound. The song reminds us that in spite of the ways the pandemic—which the song likens to a carousel ride—has separated us that we live in the memories of the communities that surround us: “Between a few wild rides, surrounded on all sides, I can still hear you.” As Suzzy says, “Lucy wrote the song in the dark days of the shutdown. Lucy has a way of inviting people in. I was thrilled when she played it for me.”
Several of the songs on the album evoke the darkness of the human heart though the singular beauty of the songs illustrates the tenderness and innocence under which such shadows lie. The spiraling vocals of “Ruins” create an echoing beauty that circles around questions of innocence and experience, with the child narrator asking, after a fateful encounter in which he destroys life, “Why’s a human heart so mean, to do the things that we do, I don’t want to ruin anything.” There is a moment of perfection in the last minute of the song when the spiraling harmonies—Amy Ray and Emily Saliers join the duo here—climb higher and higher into an angelic register, echoing as if in a cathedral. The beauty of this moment fills our souls.
“Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains)” rides along light, whimsical notes, with lilting harmonies reminiscent of The Roches’—Suzzy, Maggie, Terre—“A Dove” (from the album of the same title). As Suzzy says of the song: “I love this song by Connie Converse. I have been moved by her story, a brilliant songwriter whose dreams of success were eclipsed, and who knows why. I read that she ‘disappeared,’ no one really knows what happened to her. Some people assume she killed herself. One wonders how many brilliant artists have ‘disappeared.’”
With opening piano phrases that echo Van Morrison’s “Whenever God Shines a Light,” and riding along Scott Mulvahill’s melodious bass line, “I Think I Am a Soul” shines with a musical brilliance that glitters like a diamond. Suzzy’s lyrics ingeniously play on the idea of the soul: souls that float along the avenue even after death, the old soul that wiser than its years, the soul that overflows with love for all around it. The song twists and turns in brilliant unexpected musical ways, evoking the restlessness of a soul following the sounds of life. “I Think I Am a Soul” forms the centerpiece of the album. As Suzzy remarks, “ I love having Emily Saliers playing guitar on this track, and Lucy singing the lead. Two old souls, pure as they come.”
Swan Duck Song” might well be the “Eleanor Rigby” of the album, riding along a minor chord until the chorus, which lifts brightly for a moment. Suzzy thought she’d write a song called “Swan Song” to “commemorate the end of my creative life (which I’m always fearfully anticipating). This popped out one day, and I was surprised, but I liked it. Deceptively simple, perhaps, but another fable, like a few other songs on the album.” The traditional Irish tune “Factory Girl” “was one of my favorites to sing when I performed with my sisters (The Roches),” says Suzzy. “I think the song speaks for itself. It took on new meaning for me to sing it with Lucy and Amy Ray. The Indigo Girls, Amy and Emily, have had a huge influence on me, personally and artistically. Lucy, who met the Indigo Girls as a child, regularly sings with them these days, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
The poignant “Get the Better” flows along the haunting strains of piano and Mellotron. The richly layered vocals weave a dreamlike trance that moves us through the uncertainty of our times and our darkest days. “This is the first song that Lucy and I have collaborated on,” recalls Suzzy. “It was left on the studio floor when Lucy and Jordan made Lucy’s last recording (Little Beast). We kept the words to the chorus and Lucy’s melody, and I wrote the lyrics. I love collaborating when writing a song, because it’s surprising what comes out. This song and ‘I Can Still Hear You’ were both written during the shutdown in NYC. And for me, they capture the mood of those scary days.”
The bright chords and sunny chords of “Little” capture the innocence but knowing child-like view of the world. An ode to the children’s book Stuart Little, Suzzy says she written and re-written this song more than any other song she’s attempted. “I’m glad I didn’t abandon it. For me it captures an elusive essence that I’ve never been able to express before. It’s a song about being different, and perseverance, and leaving home. Sometimes you have to keep going, no matter what.” The darker song “Joseph D.” darts in and out of the shadows as it traces the recesses of the human heart in the character of a man who may act like a child, taking “teddy bears to bed,” but who abuses women.
Scott Mulvahill’s bass and Jordan Hamlin’s piano provide the sonic structure for Maggie Roche’s “Jane,” which Lucy sings. In its atmospheric way the song explores what we have and what we’ve lost. As Suzzy says, “My sister Maggie wrote this song. It was never recorded. Lucy has always loved it, as have I. It’s a homage to Maggie, for sure.”
The album closes with another cover, Joe Raposo’s “Bein’ Green,” known to many as Kermit the Frog’s song. “We love it,” Suzzy says. “The child-like, open honesty, is radical. It’s also a song about being different, it seemed a fitting way to end this collection of songs.”
I Can Still Hear You is an album for our times. Every song shimmers with perfection, even as it reminds us of the ragged ways that we love and the misery and loss of the days in which we find ourselves.
'I Can Still Hear You' is available for pre-order now - HERE.
Suzzy Roche on Twitter: @suzzyroche
The Roches on Facebook: @theroches
Lucy Wainwright Roche on Twitter: @lucywroche
Lucy Wainwright Roche on Facebook: @lwrlwr
Lucy Wainwright Roche on Instagram: @lucywainwrightroche