CocoRosie: La Maison de Mon Rêve and Grey Oceans

April 14, 2011

Roll: 1 – 6 – 17
La Maison de Mon Rêve (2004) / The Grey Oceans (2010) by CocoRosie

When Devendra Banhart came out with Oh Me Oh My…in 2002, there was an air of mystery surrounding him (her? it?). You could have sworn it was creepy, backwoods folk music made by an honest to god creepy, possibly toothless, backwoods witch from a southern swamp. By 2004, this illusion had been shattered, Devendra wasn’t an 80-year-old black hag, but a rather dreamy young hippie-boy (in drag). But before quickly heading off to more commercially viable pastures, he succeeded in opening the door to creepy folk music for a lot of people. Picking up the tattered shawl where he left it, CocoRosie gave us creepy, southern-operatic, folk-tronic, ragtime-blues with their debut album, La Maison de Mon Rêve. And after diverging into pop-music, like Devendra before them, it’s a sound they’ve somewhat returned to with Grey Oceans.

CocoRosie really know how to milk a shtick. Depending where your mind is at, that sentence may sound dirty. But that could be fitting since the shtick the duo (made up of sisters Bianca and Sierra) has milked for years is an incestuous, lesbian subtext.

It’s a fitting backdrop for the low-fi, rural feel of their debut. 8-bit samples of farm animals and tinny, listless, bluesy guitar back cabaret vocals positioned somewhere between Björk and Billie Holiday. Imagine if the film Sister My Sister had been set in the American South, this would be an almost perfect soundtrack.

It’s a balanced work though. An eerie melancholy does permeate the entire album but without the mood ever descending into complete darkness. The creepier moments are tempered by others of near-spiritual light.

Though the follow-up Noah’s Ark built on this fertile vein, the duo would later steer their music—with the help of Björk collaborator, Valgeir Sigurðsson—towards pop and club music with the 2007 album The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn. The experiment wasn’t as successful as hoped and it seems they’ve returned to their original path with their new album, Grey Oceans.

It could be debated which was more cynical: the high-tech, relatively radio-friendly production on Ghosthorse, or the fact Grey Oceans opens with an 8-bit sample reminiscent of their debut. It’s almost too blatant a signal to fans saying, “Hey! We’re back.” But perhaps it was necessary to capture the haters’ attention again (I’m looking at myself here).

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because Grey Oceans carries on—almost seemlessly—where Noah’s Ark left off. Plus it does so progressively, adding more obvious electronic elements while retaining the feel of their earlier work. Ironically, the result it more akin to the music of Björk than their collaboration with Sigurðsson.

The duo’s songwriting, vocals and musicianship have all improved significantly which highlights just how much of a “debut” La Maison really was. Unlike on Ghosthorse, however, the technical improvements don’t impinge on the artistic side of the music. Grey Oceans might be more polished than their first two records, but it’s also as ramshackle and adventurous as well.

Sometime in the last three years the sisters learned how to grow on their strengths, letting them evolve organically, without forcing a reinvention. It’s what reviewers traditionally would call a “more mature” record, but it’s one of those rare cases where it isn’t a back-handed compliment and a synonym for “boring”.

EDIT: In the time since this review was originally posted on Simply Syndicated’s Simply Read blog last year, I’ve reversed my opinion expressed in that final paragraph. “More mature” does indeed mean “more boring” in the case of Grey Oceans. It also means a little contrived, dispassionate and uninspired. Much like the last two TV On The Radio albums (I’ve only listened to 30-second samples of Nine Types of Light, but that’s 30-seconds too much). CocoRosie would have done better to continue in the Ghost Horse vein and taken that sound to its inevitable Lady Gaga conclusion.


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