Sometimes a band manages to pull together a variety of musical influences to craft a superb album. Other bands manage to work in unusual background sounds and surprising ambient noises to magnificent effect. Occasionally these bands manage to turn the simplest melody into something beautiful and evocative. When all these pieces come together, the completed album can be something absolutely breathtaking. Or it can just be irritating in many ways.
With La Maison de Mon Reve, CocoRosie have managed to produce a truly nightmarish record. I have to confess that it’s the first album in a long time that I couldn’t even listen through in one sitting. The album sounds like something that’s been created not so much by art school dropouts, but by people who never should have applied in the first place. On the artsy pretension scale, CocoRosie rate somewhere between Rick Wakeman and Yoko Ono (and, no, I won’t mention Ryan Adams).
The problem begins (but hardly ends) with the singing. According to legend, Sierra Casady has studied opera. Bianca Casady has not. That makes me suspect that at least one member of this duo misses her notes on purpose. Sister Bianca may or may not really have an acceptable voice, but we’ll never know. The notes don’t seem to be missed carelessly, though, the way a good bar band’s are; instead, the poor singing sounds carefully placed. I think the kids are calling it the faux mauvaise aesthetic. Then again they probably aren’t.
Musically, the album’s best moments could have fit at the first few minutes of Personal Velocity. CocoRosie, through all their atonality, sound like a soundtrack to some kind of Quaalude-riddled world. Lethargy is filtered through childhood ennui. Imagine being so out of it that it takes you a few minutes to realize that someone is rubbing your back with sandpaper. That’s about how the album sounds.
The Casady sisters haven’t done much better lyrically. The strained poeticism of La Maison de Mon Reve is too often a jumble of half-formed imagery and random expressions. In “Butterscotch” the singer explains that she’s “got a bruise on my pinky ring from holding too tight”. I doubt that’s what she means because I’ve never heard of a ring with a bruise on it. The attempt at artistry might be worth something. I like the take on holding hands as something simultaneously valuable and harmful — especially in light of the duo’s look at domestic violence and oppression in “By Your Side” — but the attempt isn’t worth a hill of haricots when the result falls this flat.
The singers’ childlike deliveries fit best on “Jesus Love Me”, a creepy response to the traditional song “Jesus Loves the Children”. CocoRosie’s take on religion is pretty straightforward: “Jesus loves me / But not my wife / Not my nigger friends”. Church sexism and racism are topics that need to be addressed in the arts, but CocoRosie have no idea what to say about it. The closest they come is a trite comment on people “wishing for heaven and gettin’ hell” (in a stanza in which they effortlessly rhyme “well” with “well”). A faint light of thought peeps through on this song, but CocoRosie can’t remove the veil.
Finally, after a disc of elementary acoustic guitars, playground swings, and bad poetry (like that weird junior high English teacher we all had), we come to the final track, “Lyla”. In case we didn’t realize that the album’s title is in French, “Lyla” starts off with lines about “a hundred euro” and a “little car”, thereby assuring us of CocoRosie’s continental artiness. I’m briefly reminded of Edith Wharton, until CocoRosie interrupt me with their thoughts on Yugoslavian children and prostitution. Actually this track (aside from the vocals) is almost worth listening to. The song’s sad, but at least I’m cheered up when I realize that the album is fini. My headphones hurt.