CocoRosie: Tales of a GrassWidow

Tales of a GrassWidow
Republic of Music

CocoRosie is forever waiting for its moment to arrive. The path has been riddled with caustic receptions by mainstream critics and everyday bloggers, whose negative judgments of sisters Bianca and Sierra Casady have included everything from misappropriating race to “terrible” looks and voices. When the act signed to Sub Pop for 2010’s Grey Oceans, the mean-spirited reactions from site commenters overshadowed the positive remarks in quantity and fervor. In fairness to the perplexed, the Casady sisters do themselves no favors by accentuating the very qualities that have been fodder for catty reviews. They have often given ridiculous interviews. Bianca’s singing voice remains willfully eccentric. Beautiful women, they choose to wear costumes and makeup that challenge contemporary Western ideals of beauty. But should any of this preclude their recognition as exceptional pop musicians/storytellers?

Positioned in some artistic continuum that has celebrated kindred characters like Cindy Sherman, Björk, Karin Dreijer Andersson, and the White Girl Mob, CocoRosie soldiers on despite its comparative lack of acclaim. It’s a good thing the sisters have persisted, as fifth album Tales of a GrassWidow is their best offering to date. The album explicitly alludes to past CocoRosie repertoire while eliminating the excess and lack of focus that created hiccups on earlier outings. If there’s anything such as a “reset” in the peculiar world these sisters have imagined, then Tales of a GrassWidow is it.

Those acquainted with the sisters’ earlier soundscapes and lyrical content will find some interesting links here. Single “Tears for Animals” features longtime CocoRosie mentor Antony Hegarty. Bianca’s vocal melody is almost identical to that of “K-hole” from Noah’s Ark (2005). Despite these connections, the song never seems like a retread. Instead it uses familiar elements in the service of greater ambition, both sonically and emotionally. Though much of CocoRosie’s power lies in the contrast of Bianca’s affected voice with Sierra’s operatic technique, “Tears for Animals” soars on the duet of Sierra with Hegarty. “Tears for Animals” is their “Hyperballad”.

Another intentional throwback is the production style of “End of Time”. The beatbox rhythm and high-pitched synthesizer have been carried over from the infamous performance of “Werewolf” on France 2’s Esprits libres in 2007. Since that version of “Werewolf” barely resembled the album track but has become popular on YouTube, the resurrection of its arrangement for a new song is a sort of reward to listeners who have stayed with CocoRosie for the long haul.

Songs like “End of Time” and “After the Afterlife” signal a fixation with leaving the world behind. The CocoRosie mythology has long been spiritually ambiguous, incorporating repressed childhood traumas, vision quests, astral projections, and so forth. The fantastical elements that could be read as means of escape are now becoming rooted in a more recognizable physical world, and this works to the strength of the songs. The most vivid storytelling on Tales of a GrassWidow involves the sorrow of injuries committed against young and defenseless characters.

This concern for such characters expands on the promise of “R.I.P. Burn Face” from Grey Oceans. The current songs’ growing distress for persecuted young women around the world counteracts the claims that the Casady sisters are a novelty act, but the realities they describe are so grim that some might prefer to ignore them altogether. “Child Bride” is even more straightforward than “R.I.P. Burn Face” in its description of a young girl in danger and subject to abuse. Despite its pleasant tune, “Tears for Animals” is itself a mournful song of violence with a plea to “Stop the slaughter of our daughters.” The exchange of voices in “Gravediggress” is that of a young girl talking to an older woman, asking her to bury her “love” and “holy”. It’s a narrative scenario that motivates Bianca’s child-like delivery and the apparent wisdom of Sierra’s classicism. No song on the album better illustrates the sisters’ exquisite sense of musical tension and equilibrium.

The press materials for Tales of a GrassWidow make clear the feminist mission of the album. I don’t pretend to understand all of CocoRosie’s political aims, but this is not an album whose merits rest on any specific conception of “patriarchy” or a listener’s interpretation thereof. In this sense, among others, Tales of a GrassWidow is a more coherent album than the clunkily political Shaking the Habitual, the critically acclaimed new release from the Knife. On Tales of a GrassWidow, the prevailing idea that cuts through potentially divisive subject matter is the repeated question of “Tears for Animals”: “Do you have love for humankind?” It’s never been all that easy to navigate the world created within CocoRosie’s music, but as that world and its tormented characters start to look more like our own, the command to love is a good step toward making the wounded whole.

RATING 8 / 10