The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Penguin Classics)

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The Weird Sisters: CocoRosie’s Grey Oceans

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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.

A Year in Reading: Scott Esposito

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Looking back over 2009, there are far too many books that I loved to write them all up here, but here are some of the standouts that may not have received the attention they deserve.

As a judge for Open Letter Books’ Best Translated Book Award, I read The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans, originally published in the Netherlands in 1958. Plotwise, it’s as riveting a detective story as I read all year, but its purpose is far beyond that of your average noir. The book dramatizes the experience of a Dutch resistance fighter during World War II, but with a twist: eventually he, and we, become uncertain as to which side he’s actually working for, with disastrous consequences. When the book was published in 1958, Nazi collaboration and Holocaust guilt were huge factors in Dutch society (they remain so today), so the book was attempting to grapple with a major issue of the day. It remains wholly affecting as both a novel and as a dramatization of the fog of war.

We continue to hear rumblings that postmodernism as a cultural and literary era is ending, and that we’re moving on to whatever comes next (post-postmodernism?). If so, I have the feeling that the literary ideas and techniques bequeathed to us by postmodernism will, like those gifted us by modernism, live on in the literature to come, whatever form it takes. One book that did a superb job of embracing and tweaking postmodernism as a literary genre was 2009’s The Cardboard Universe by Christopher Miller. As I wrote in my review at the Review of Contemporary Fiction, the book “is an encyclopedic guide to the life work of an imaginary, reclusive sci-fi author whose initials are PKD.” He’s not Philip K. Dick but rather Phoebus K. Dank, and the two men writing the encyclopedia about his life’s work are: 1) Dank’s sycophantic best friend, and 2) his pompous, angry arch-rival. The result is an honestly hilarious “novel” that’s part Pale Fire, part murder mystery, and part grad student Easter egg hunt. It remains one of my favorite reads of 2009, and I hope lots of people give it a shot.

This year I read all of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, which was not only a wonderful reading experience but also a revealing one: those who think they know him from his post-Blood Meridian work aren’t nearly as well acquainted with McCarthy as they think. Real McCarthyites need to read the four novels that came before Blood Meridian, the longest and most amazing of which is Suttree. The book, quite simply, is McCarthy on Joyce. It’s a pastoral, quasi-epic set on the Tennessee River; it’s been called an anti-Walden, a worthy sequel to Huck Finn. Whatever label you want to put on it, it’s the longest, lushest most intricate and baroquely bizarre thing McCarthy ever wrote. (Those who think Blood Meridian is baroque need to read this.)

A book that had long been recommended to me and that I finally got around to was Stoner by John Williams, which has me convinced that Williams was a devotee of Thomas Mann. Like Mann, Williams shows here an ability to tell you everything you need to know about a character’s function in the book with leitmotifs. He also resembles Mann in that he masterfully orchestrates the evolution and interplay of numerous ideas throughout the course of the novel while never neglecting the very human drama that forms the heart of the story. Stoner is essentially about the value of a life: the titular protagonist is a perfectly mediocre academic who lives and dies without ever making much of an impact. Yet in Williams’ hands we see all the value and struggle that goes into a life that has no historical importance. Williams won a National Book Award for Butcher’s Crossing, which I’ve heard is even better, all that more reason that I’m glad NYRB Classics has brought him back into print.

Lastly I’d like to mention The Late Age of Print by Ted Striphas as one of the more interesting critical works I’ve read this year. Striphas simply sets out to describe the publishing industry and associated apparatus in which he calls the “late age of print.” In order to do that he must recapitulate a good deal of the publishing industry as we know it, going back into the middle of hte 19th century. The resultant book is interesting both as a history of publishing and a look at this late age and where publishing might be headed tomorrow.

More from A Year in Reading

Top Tens: Their Silliness, Their Allure


Longtime Millions reader Laurie sent in her reaction to all these “top ten” book lists that have been floating around in recent months, while also, of course, sharing her own:In the wake of the release of The Top Ten, [there is also a Web site] a collection of top ten books chosen by 125 British and American writers, the Washington Post is soliciting readers’ top ten picks.These exercises are fun, but I hope no one takes them seriously. The lists they receive (like mine) will lean toward American/British books, with a smattering of European titles, partly because American schools emphasize Western literature. Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber should be as well known as War and Peace, but most Americans have never heard of it. Even when we have read the non-Western classics, we tend to favor the familiar — my list included The Old Man & the Sea and To Kill A Mockingbird, but Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji and Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh are probably greater works.What do you want to bet, though, that like the Modern Library a few years ago, they get inundated with a lot of lists that include Battlefield Earth?!My top ten (not set in stone, except for Heart of Darkness):The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark TwainThe Old Man and the Sea – Ernest HemingwayHeart of Darkness – Joseph ConradPortrait of the Artist As a Young Man – James JoyceTo Kill A Mockingbird – Harper LeeDon Quixote – CervantesThe Iliad & The Odyssey – HomerThe Dream of the Red Chamber – Cao XueqinWar & Peace – Leo TolstoyOedipus the King – SophoclesThanks Laurie!

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