At first glance, the cover art of Suzzy and Maggie Roche's Zero
Church is innocuously pleasant, a brilliantly colored bird
soaring over parched hills against a backdrop of fleecy clouds. Then
you notice that the bird's wings and feet are tightly bound.
Artist Janie Geiser's image evokes the spirit of this album, its
songs all explorations of transcending one's fetters and soaring,
however fleetingly, be those fetters the human condition itself or
one of its particularly nasty and crippling expressions. (It's also
spookily resonant with the events of September 11, the album's
scheduled release date, on which Suzzy Roche, out walking her dog in
New York, witnessed the planes slamming into the World Trade Center.)
The songs were catalyzed into being when the Roche sisters, who had
long been interested in the nature of prayer and what it meant to the
people involved, asked fellow participants in a workshop at The
Institute on the Arts & Civic Dialogue, founded by Anna Deveare Smith
at Harvard University, to share prayers they found meaningful.
Perhaps not too surprisingly, given that the Institute's work focuses
on "artistic collaboration and discovery while exploring issues of
race, identity, diversity and community," they got an eclectic
assortment, from traditional hymns and verses to highly personal
outbursts of joy or anguish, from fellow artists, spiritual explorers
and audience members. The tales sprang from such experiences as
living with AIDS, escape from slavery in Africa, and haunting
memories of the Vietnam war; after extended conversations with each
contributor, the sisters set the words to music.
The results are often riveting and overwhelming in their intensity.
What they all have in common is the well-known Roche vocal harmonies
(beautifully produced by Suzzy Roche and Stewart Lerman, and
accompanied by an excellent cast of collaborators), which combine
technical excellence with sometimes idiosyncratic panache to bring
out the implicit richness of the words whether the Lord's alluring
blandishments in the biblical verse "Jeremiah," the almost gleeful
defiance mixed with the edifying sentiments of "Anyway," or the
overwhelming emotion of Suzzy's "New York City," written for a
post-9/11 firehouse benefit.
Whatever their sources, the songs on Zero Church (the actual
address of the building a church in which many of the
workshop's sessions took place, but also an explicit statement that
organized religion has no place here) are highly personal. Some are
traditional, some are innovative, some aren't noticeably theistic.
Different listeners will find different tracks more appealing and
accessible (to say nothing of the fact that one's in Hebrew and
another in Spanish), but there isn't a false note or syllable here.
It's hard not to be stopped in one's tracks, for example, by the
soft-spoken African voice in "Musical Prayer by Francis Bok,"
thanking God for delivering him from slavery, by the ethereal song
that builds from his words, or by the accompanying explanation in the
liner notes that Bok was kidnapped and sold into slavery as a child
in Sudan and, by circuitous paths, made his to the Institute.
Equally remarkable is "Praise Song for a New Day" by Cecile McHardy,
"a playful, wheelchaired-wandering, urban buddhist yogi." The song, a
celebration of the dawn as seen from her attic apartment, takes wing
as the sisters voice McHardy's words "Over the doors of day/
Here by this windowsill/ I watch the climbing light/ As early
footsteps steal/Enormous shadows away..." with such lilting,
airborne urgency, such a compelling interest in the next image to
reveal itself, that it's impossible to look away.
Not unlike the Roche sisters' work over the last few decades, Zero
Church defies easy categorization and certainly seems likely to
avoid mass-market success. On the other hand, they probably said that
about the "O Brother" soundtrack, too, and if that blockbuster has
whetted your appetite for excellent music coming from deep in the
human soul, look no further.