Weirdly beautiful creations

“Welcome to the afterlife,” coo Bianca ‘Coco’ and Sierra ‘Rosie’ Casady, known better as CocoRosie, on the opening song of their new album, Tales of a GrassWidow. Produced by Icelandic record producer and composer Valgeir Sigurðsson and released on 27 May 2013 by City Slang, it’s the sister duo’s fifth studio album.

It is hard to say whether in mentioning the ‘afterlife’ Bianca and Sierra are admitting that they were ‘killed’ by the generally unfavourable reviews of their previous album Grey Oceans (2010) or whether they merely thought it a provocative beginning for a record. As those following CocoRosie’s fortunes since their debut in 2004 know well, the meaning of the sisters’ lyrics and album artwork is often contentious, if not outright scandalous.

The first song, ‘After The Afterlife’, has a spiritual and churchlike atmosphere, which carries to the following track, ‘Tears for Animals’, a collaboration with Antony Hegerty of Antony and the Johnsons. As in ‘Beautiful Boyz’ on their 2005 album Noah’s Ark, the intertwining of Antony’s sweet-sad voice with Bianca’s, which sounds modified even if it is not, works extremely well. Antony joins the sisters also in the last song of the album, ‘Poison’.

What I love about the Casady sisters is their uniqueness and idiosyncrasy

CocoRosie’s trademark mixture of styles and use of unusual instruments (guitar, piano, harp, toys, percussion, pump organ and more) and sounds (beatboxing), is evident throughout the album, with ‘Child Bride’ revealing the duo’s folky side. Similarly, ‘Roots of My Hair’ brings to mind Joanna Newsom, while the intimate piano of ‘Harmless Monster’ made me think of Regina Spektor. There is rapping in ‘End of Time’ and a rhythmic pop vibe in ‘Villain’.

CocoRosie’s work, described as “experimental”, “freak folk” or “avant-folk”, juxtaposes electronic sounds with more traditional orchestrations, which results at times in weirdly beautiful creations and at times in unbearable dissonances hard to stomach even for the staunchest of fans. Tales of a Grass Widow is a user-friendly album in this respect, overall easier on the ears and demanding a smaller leap of faith and tuning in than previous ones. This is not to say it is bland, rather that the otherworldly has become more palatable. Several tunes, like ‘Child Bride’ or ‘Roots of My Hair’, are catchy and guaranteed to stay with you for longer.

The established fans are getting what they already love in fresh new arrangements while it is also a good primer for those not familiar with CocoRosie’s music

I have a soft spot for CocoRosie’s music even though the Joanna Newsom-Antony-Devendra Banhart circles are not my first choice when it comes to what I listen to. What I love about the Casady sisters is their uniqueness and idiosyncrasy, perfectly embodied in this performance of ‘Hairnet Paradise’. If you have never heard of CocoRosie before, this is a good test: if after watching it you think: “It’s genius”, you are in.

On the level of lyrics, caution is advised, although here it is unlikely that the album will stir much controversy. CocoRosie’s ‘race issue’ has been notorious since ‘Jesus Loves Me’ from their debut albumLa Maison de Mon Reve. ‘Rainbowarriors’, opening their 2007 album The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn, based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem Hiawatha, was also accused of naïve and insensitive appropriation of Native American mythology. Bianca often appears in drag, including on the cover of The Adventures…, but Beth Ditto of freak folk she is not.

After ‘Gravediggress’ was released in February 2013 as the first single promoting the album, it was described as “an imagined conversation between an abandoned child and an outcast old woman (the titular Gravediggress)” , supposedly to be continued throughout the album. I am not sure about that as the most striking feature seems to be the challenging dissonance between the lyrics and the titles. With more politically engaged artists, Antony’s haunting repetition of “Do you have love for human kind?” in ‘Tears for Animals’ could perhaps imply taking a pro-vegetarian stand. ‘End of Time’ heralds the apocalypse in more spiritual than environmental terms and ‘Child Bride’ turns a child given away by her family into a ‘grass widow’, contemplating the grass outside her window.

If you give it a go, Tales of a Grass Widow will take you on a highly enjoyable journey, sometimes touching and sending shivers down your spine, sometimes bizarre and amusing. The established fans are getting what they already love in fresh new arrangements while it is also a good primer for those not familiar with CocoRosie’s music. The line between the feeling of elation and the fingernails-scratching-the-blackboard cringing is sometimes very fine but with their latest offering Bianca and Sierra make it a bit easier for the listeners to like them.

Image one of Coco Rosie by Astrid Karoual. Used according to a flickr creative commons licence

Ania Ostrowska has had a great time in the land of freak folk but is keen to leave it for the Sheffield Doc/Fest now