The Casady sisters’ fifth album draws on the beguiling sonic shuffling ‘freak folk’ that made their name and playfully strange stories for a naturally evolved pop music, says Daniel Jones.
Growing up in the Midwest more interested in books than sports, I spent a lot of time using my imagination as a form of entertainment. I’d make ‘zines that gave as much space to musicians like Sonic Youth and The Birthday Party as it did to obscene and blasphemous skateboard designs my friends and I would make. Sandwiched between these rudimentary album reviews (usually ending in fart jokes, references to nihilist literature, or nihilistic fart jokes) and sketches of Doug Funnie doing a Chaos flip off our teacher’s head, we’d put strange little stories. They weren’t always ours; sometimes we’d just insert texts we’d found and liked, but usually we’d come up with something on the spot, staying up late into the dawn arguing the details of an abstract fantasy that only five or six people would see. We probably spent far more time on these pieces than the rest of the content combined. Stories are important.
I think that’s what attracted me to CocoRosie in the first place. Their debut album La maison de mon rêve is sweetly uncanny, an intimate gathering of narratives and toy instruments that felt as charming as it did unsettling. The stories within—of abuse, prostitution, racism, religion—have all been touched on countless times, but rarely to such a clever degree of playfulness; playfulness that underscored the points rather than made light of them. Their latest album contains just as many engaging tales, but the song structures and their production tell their own stories. Tales of a Grass Widow builds on some of the brighter and more accessible ideas of their previous albums and expands on them. Fourth album Grey Oceans felt like a hand stretched out, reaching to experimentally touch something new; Tales clenches that hand tight and takes control of it. Where once the instrumentation of the Casady sisters might have baffled, with some sonic shuffling these same sounds engage. The garbled electronics of an ancient child’s toy opens “After The Afterlife”, swiftly warping into piano and the dreaded specter of autotune, here used lightly to accent key moments. It’s a bit like hearing a rebirth from noise to pop; a just-subtle-enough wink that made me smile.
The Antony-led “Tears for Animals” is the first ‘true’ pop moment on the album, two unique and rich voices entwining against a capering beat and a subversively deceptive lightness antithetical to the depression buried beneath Bianca’s half-sneered sexuality: “All you fellows climbed me like a staircase, wore me down,” gently wailed even as Antony’s croons caress. Clockwork hip-hop beats strut and shatter, pan pipes drawing out a half-naturalistic, half-mechanical world that feels as easy to follow as if it had been conjured in a book. There’s plenty of subtle wonders to discover in the sonics here: metallic, knife-like scrapes and organ stabs in “Villain” startle when accented with big-room trap vocal punctuations; the shocking explosion of the happy hardcore-flavored hidden track “Happy Eyez”, wildly updated from their Coconuts, Plenty of Junk Food EP version. Surprise and delight remain equal contenders for the ears: “End Of Time” bounces past like a bizarro “Gin and Juice”, the delicate pleading of “Harmless Monster” is equally beautiful and pitiful.
Tales of a Grass Widow has everything that endeared La maison de mon rêve to me nine years ago. All of the strangeness is still here; it’s simply been updated for different ears, a natural evolution. It’s a compelling and thoroughly enjoyable album that not only shows how far the Casadys have come in terms of how they use their strangeness to create worlds, but also serves to highlight how our own ideas about pop music have evolved. Whatever it is that draws you in—be it imagination or simply a need to hear something different—CocoRosie prove that they still have plenty of wonderful stories to tell, and new ways to tell them.˜
Tales of a Grass Widow is out now on City Slang.