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Three on Base, Looking for a Big Hit : In the Meantime, the Roches Are Happy to Connect With Their Crisp Musical Snapshots of Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After 16 years and 10 record releases, the Roches still have a lot to say with their music.

In fact, Maggie Roche, the eldest of the harmonizing, New Jersey-raised sisters who make up the trio, never has had more to say in song--quantitatively, at least.

Yes, she acknowledges, “there were a few raised eyebrows” when two of the three songs she contributed to the group’s new album, “Can We Go Home Now,” clocked in at about 8 1/2 minutes each. Those lengths might seem more appropriate for a progressive-rock band like King Crimson (whose leader, Robert Fripp, produced two of the Roches’ early albums) than for a folk-pop ensemble whose forte is taking crisp musical snapshots of life’s funnier or more poignant passages.

“But,” Maggie Roche added in a recent phone interview from her Manhattan apartment, “a song is a song in this group, and everybody rolled with it.”

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Maggie Roche said she herself was surprised as the song “Can We Go Home Now” rolled on for a soft, dreamlike reverie of eight minutes plus and when “My Winter Coat” piled up couplet upon couplet of wry observations about its author’s favorite outer-garment.

“I don’t know what happened. It just got out of hand,” she said. “I’d rather they had been shorter.”

Roches audiences (including the one that will gather at the Coach House on Friday) probably will regard hearing those two excursions as time well spent. The songs certainly aren’t redundant, despite their length.

“Can We Go Home Now” is an oblique song that focuses plaintively on feelings of dislocation. It could be about a child who finds herself disoriented by a forced move following a divorce, or about an elderly person who can’t get her bearings in new surroundings, or . . . well, the object seems to be to invite speculation, and that’s how Maggie Roche prefers to leave it.

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“I’m aware that the song could be ambiguous, and I hope it doesn’t frustrate people too much,” she said. “I wasn’t able to be any more specific in that instance. I hope it will resonate in some way.”

On the other hand, the whimsical “My Winter Coat” positively luxuriates in concreteness as Maggie sings fondly and humorously about a favorite garment that suits her well, despite its imperfections.

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It had a small chain at the back of the neck

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So you could hang it on a hook, but it broke,

What the heck.

With the end of each sleeve I’m totally smitten,

Ample space for to emerge a thick mitten.

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If you wanna be warm it wins far and away,

It’s like walkin’ around in your bed all day. And so on, and so on, and so on.

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“I was as surprised as anybody when I started getting lines like that,” Maggie Roche said. “It wasn’t like I thought we needed a song about a coat. I was walking around the streets, and I was getting lines about this coat, and I had to go home and write them down. For some reason, I was very clear about the reasons I like this coat. I think it cost $160. . . . It’s showing signs of wear, I hate to say it. You know that point a coat gets to where you wash it repeatedly and it’s getting those permanent signs of worn-ness? I’m in denial about it.”

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While she didn’t write the song as an allegory, Maggie Roche says it dawned on her after hearing it played back that it does make for a nice symbolic statement about long-lasting relations: how our appreciation of an object, or a person, can remain even as we grow so familiar with them that we know their shortcomings along with their virtues.

The Roches’ own professional partnership has worn well over more than two decades. As teen-agers, Maggie, now 43, and Terre, a year younger, formed a duo. They sought out Paul Simon, who became a mentor and helped them issue their first album, “Seductive Reasoning,” in 1975.

Having absorbed some hard knocks after the album failed to sell, they re-emerged as a trio after kid-sister Suzzy, now 38, began caroling with them around Christmas of 1976. The Roches’ first album as a threesome arrived in 1979, mapping out the distinctive close-harmony singing style and the penchant for alternately poignant and off-kilter material that remain the group’s hallmarks.

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Recent new departures for the Roches include a 1994 children’s album, “Will You Be My Friend?” that was spearheaded by Suzzy, whose role as the mother to a teen-age daughter has led to the group’s policy of playing on weekends during the school year and packing most of their tour dates into the summers.

The Roches also recently filmed their first group movie role (although Suzzy had acted in the film “Crossing Delancey”), appearing as a lounge act in a romantic comedy featuring Richard Lewis and Rita Rudner. They also have a new record company, having signed with the well-regarded independent label Rykodisc after previous stays with Warner Bros. and MCA.

The Roches remain a quintessential cult favorite, utterly distinctive, but without any big hits. But Maggie Roche still dreams, a bit wistfully, that this long-running family business--younger brother David Roche serves as both road manager and solo-acoustic opening act--might one day break through with a hit.

“We’d like to make a million dollars and be set for life,” she said. “It’s hard to let go of a hope like that, even though after 20 years you start to wonder. That’s one of the things about this business--everyone seems to be entertaining fantasies of a payoff at some point.

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“It’s not something I count on, but I keep thinking that at some point life should let up,” she said. “We’ve been lucky, though. We have a career, and that is a gift. I guess I want things to be easy, but that’s not the way it is.”

* The Roches play Friday at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $18.50. (714) 496-8930.


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