CocoRosie‘s new album, Grey Oceans, comes out on Wednesday. It’s their fourth album and their first release from SubPop. Through Wednesday, SubPop is streaming the album for free at SoundCloud. For those who don’t know CocoRosie, they’re a freak-folky, trip-hoppy, fantastically costumed, often cross-dressed, incestuously close and otherworldly pair of sister singers and musicians. If Björk and Billie Holliday had twin girls, they might sound something like CocoRosie (likewise, the offspring of the Cocteau Twins and Bessie Smith). There are also shades of Cat Power, Portishead, and the classical-folk-hip-hop work of the young singer and violin virtuoso Emily Wells in the duo’s work.
The story of the band’s genesis has become something of a legend and it’s integral to their mystique. No matter who’s telling it, it sounds like a fairytale and I think it’s better told as such:
Once upon a time there were two beautiful sisters named Sierra and Bianca Casady. Their mother, Christina, was Syrian and Cherokee and maybe a little Gypsy too and their father was a creepy Iowa farmer infatuated with Native American religion and Voodoo who took his young daughters to New Age ceremonies where all of the adults got scarily wacked out on peyote. He eventually became some kind of shaman. Perhaps because of this, or perhaps because of other obscure evils, the beautiful Gypsy mother left her husband and spent her daughters’ childhood years wandering through New Mexico, Arizona, Hawaii, and California, sometimes enrolling her daughters in school and sometimes not. The girls liked wearing costumes, casting spells, and making up stories about imaginary lands.
At some point in this wandering, the sisters were separated. The eldest, Sierra (also called Rosie), ended up in Paris studying voice and opera. The younger, Bianca, also called Coco, ended up in Brooklyn, where she studied philosophy and sometimes went to ironic “Kill Whitey” hipster parties. Eventually, Bianca got tired of the hipsters and decided to travel abroad. Her first stop was Paris where, after ten years, she was reunited with her beloved sister Sierra in Sierra’s tiny garret flat. There, the girls shut themselves in and recreated their childhood world: dressing up, making up songs and stories.
Bianca had brought some sort of archaic recording device to Paris and the sisters recorded some of their songs from the strange and distant land of their private imaginary world sitting in the bathtub (because it made a nice echo), playing guitars, harps, snake-charming flutes, wind-up music boxes and electronic children’s toys, jangling chains and coins, thrumming their fingers on tin cans. The homemade demo that resulted from this bathroom session found its way into the hands of Touch & Go Records producer Corey Rusk. He couldn’t stop listening to it. He found Sierra and Bianca, signed them, and together they released the songs under the title La Maison de Mon Rêve (2004). CocoRosie was born.
It’s quite a tale and you won’t find a straighter version of it. (The Casady sisters aren’t much for anything that’s not tinged with fancy or fairydust, as Fernanda Eberstadt‘s excellent profile of the band in the New York Times Magazine a couple of years back illustrates in great detail.) And the fantasy and fairytale continues in their music.
The sisters’ private mythology is equal parts Victorian childhood and modern Gothic. They are innocents who know about the dark side (miscarriages, incest, racism, disfigured and battered women, cemeteries in the back yard) but still believe in angels, fairies, God, St. Nicholas. This, combined with their ingenious use of found sounds, strange and improvised instruments, samples, echoes, overlaid vocals, their mix of the primitive and nostalgic (feline yowls, a recording of their mother chanting in her native Cherokee, tinkly old music boxes), classical (Sierra’s wordless operatic trills and wails), and hypermodern (synthesizers, beat boxes, electronic children’s toys, and talk boxy/auto-tune voice effects) might convince you that the Spiritualists were right and that what you’re listening to is really a recording of the voices of the dead disrupting a radio broadcast or a trip hop D.J.’s set.
This haunting, scary-pretty, Weird Sisters siren singing is not for everyone. It tends to make lovers or haters. My husband believes that the singing of these madwomen in the bathtub might be put in the mix with death metal, the Barney song, and looped recordings of crying babies, as a tool of interrogation and torture. But I’m a lover: CocoRosie’s bathtub album had me at, “Jesus loves me/But not my wife/Not my nigger friends/Or their nigger lives.” Hearing this track, “Jesus Loves Me,” from La Maison de Mon Rêve (2004) was one few jaw-dropping experiences of my recent musical life—and it wasn’t just because of the lyrics.
If you listened to the song out of context, as I did the first time, you might think that you’d stumbled upon an early recording of a backwoods white supremacist version of the original 19th century hymn—except that the very white Sierra, who sings lead vocals on this track, sounds kind of like Billie Holiday. (Incidentally, Sierra also sounds like a 90-year-old bedlamite, and I say this with the utmost respect.) This haunting blackvoice inflects many of La Maison de Mon Rêve lyrics. And not only can CocoRosie sound black, and occasionally use a kind of Gone With The Wind/Huck Finn Southern black dialect (“dat fo sho”, “all dem kears”), their lyrics also mimic the idioms of early blues. “I swear I won’t call no coppa,/If I’m beat up by my poppa,” Bessie Smith sang in her 1923 “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness if I Do.” On the bluesy, beat-boxed “By Your Side,” Sierra, with the same casual tolerance of domestic violence, sings “I’ll wear your black eyes,/Bake you apple pies,” in a voice that, again, you might mistake for a quavery late Lady Day. This isn’t Zooey Deschanel, America’s milque-y indie sweetheart, giving “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” a try (as good as her retro girlpop stuff for She & Him is, her version of this song feels a little thin).
The sisters’ songs are unsettling and otherworldly and, I find, totally addictive and transporting. Their first album is still my favorite. In spite of its undeniable affections and stylizing, it still has a naively original quality, and for all of its contrivances it doesn’t feel contrived–kind of like Michel Gondry‘s film La Science des Rêves (The Science of Sleep). The child’s imaginary world/children’s art project atmosphere feels authentic and touching and wonderful, if also fragile and a little disturbed.
The sisters’ second and third albums, Noah’s Ark (2005) and The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn (2007) have been increasingly polished and produced and the found sounds, musical styles pastiched and electronic effects have multiplied—though the unearthly feral child/fairyland vibe, the suggestions of unwholesome sexuality (the cover of Noah’s Ark, for example, depicts three unicorns in what appears to be a sodomy conga line) , and the invocations of a quasi-Christian fallenness that inflected La Maison remain creepily entrenched in their mythology.
And so it is on in their latest album, Grey Oceans, their fourth full-length release and their SubPop debut:
Baby girl don’t you cry
Momma’s gonna buy you a glass eye
And it will glimmer like starlight
Sierra sings on “R.I.P. Burn Face”, which is my favorite track on the album. It’s also the most coherently melodic, a lament for those lost at sea, or possibly for a disfigured girl who’s drowned herself. (Coherent narratives have never been the signature of CocoRosie lyrics and they aren’t now.) The album’s first three tracks, “Trinity’s Crying,” “Smokey Taboo,” and “Hopscotch” (which features Bianca’s in her signature babyvoice singing a kind of vaudeville-y, children’s tap chorus-line tune of the sort that becomes maddeningly lodged in the brain), are beautifully arranged and mixed—really, all of the tracks are. But there’s something a bit less personal about this album: Grey Oceans won’t send you headlong down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass, as previous albums have done.
This one feels more generic, more manufactured in its polish. And, worse than generic, several of the tracks on which Bianca sings in her uncanny baby voice sound like counterfeit Björk songs. The title track, “Grey Oceans,” is like this. The only difference is that Bianca Casady doesn’t have Björk’s ability to break and balance the fey child’s patter with lusty, athletic yelling-singing. On “Fairy’s Paradise” Bianca sings the opening lines, “He draws near the periphery,/In disbelief on delivery,” but most of her r’s and l’s sound like w’s (He dwaws neaw the pewifewy,/In disbeweif on dewivewy) and it’s, well, it’s just ridiculous. “Undertaker,” possibly an autobiographical song about the obscurely evil Casady father, features a haunting intro and coda sample of the Casady sisters’ mother chanting in Cherokee. It’s quite something but, again, Bianca’s parody Björk voice just doesn’t work, as it doesn’t quite in “The Moon Asked The Crow” (in spite of its catchy hip-hoppy beat).
Bianca’s baby-voice can work (“Armageddon” on Noah’s Ark, is great), but here it’s brought to the fore and carries the lead vocals on most tracks. And it sounds like Bianca’s playing it up more, distorting her pronunciation to a clownish degree, often while singing melodramatic autobiographical lyrics, and what was once uncanny verges into the absurd.
But absurdity is not the sum of this album. It’s got intimations of the signature CocoRosie strange beauty as well. I am glad to have two such outlandish, otherworldly fantasists in the world and making art.