I just caught up with a 2007 music issue of Oxford American, a thoughtful magazine from the city of the University of Mississippi. Each year it comes with a mix CD, but since I stole this one from a hospital, I had to content myself with reading descriptions of the songs on it. However, there's one song on it from the Roches' 1979 debut album, which I have just about memorized. The trio have the kind of unusual harmonies that only seem possible in siblings, but they combine this ethereal sound with smart, funny, self-referential lyrics. Robert Fripp produced it and lent some guitar work, notably a beautifully Frippy solo in "Hammond Song," which is only one of the reasons it remains a favorite.
The songs on that album seem autobiographical, from the opening "We" to "Mr Sellack" to "The Married Man." But "Hammond Song," the second cut, seems to be rich with familial drama. The background is that Hammond is a town in Louisiana that the two older sisters, Maggie and Terre, spent six months in after singing on Paul Simon's There Goes Rhymin' Simon and releasing and touring to support their own album. The went to Hammond as a duo, but one is following a man. Either then or later, Hammond presents a life-altering decision: If you go down to Hammond/You'll never come back. This prediction seems to have been refuted, as the two returned to New York to have little sister Suzzy make it a trio.
I am most grateful that the OA article urges the reader to seek out a VHS recording of the Roches doing "Hammond Song" in 1983 on the show Soundstage. Because, by god, two years later here it sits on YouTube, apparently cut from a larger documentary.
The reviewer calls out a great moment to notice: Maggie (playing guitar) wrote the song, which is sung to someone else: If you go down to Hammond. Terre (high voice), seems to be the one who left, and sings her story solo:
I did as I pleased
I ain't the only one
Who's got this disease
Why don't you face the fact, you old upstart
We fall apart.
At that same final note in the other stanzas, the trio hits a pure, high, laser-like tone, but on We fall a-PAAAART, Terre takes it solo and full-voiced, holding it out forever, over another accusatory line sung by Maggie and Suzzy, If you go with that fella. Then she steps back and lays out of the next harmonies, in what I take to be an echo of the period of the sisters' lives -- they sing, Don't be a fool. She puts her hands on her hips and seems to center herself before rejoining the song. Whether it's stagecraft, technique, or a bit of history, no matter. A great moment.