Despite what their album titles would have you believe, CocoRosie have never been one for telling stories—or at least not the cohesive, plot-driven stories Stephen King and Dan Brown would have us believe is the mark of a true narrative. But Tales Of A Grass Widow is the closest they’ve come yet: part childhood bedtime story/part warning tale of mortality. Sisters Bianca and Sierra Casady have shown on previous albums that they have a way with words. The kind of way where the lyrics smash into each other, flicked out of the sisters’ mouths by perpetually loose tongues. And they have a definite style: Sienna attempted a career as an opera singer in Paris; Bianca raps and everyone cringes. 2010’s Grey Oceans and 2007’s Adventures Of Ghosthorse And Stillborn were exercises in getting lost. Their linguistic playfulness and musical grab bag style left the listener either feeling proud of himself, car sick, or annoyed. But Tales Of A Grass Widow is missing the ego of past albums. Rather than attempting to mock or challenge the listener, CocoRosie seem content to merely satiate him.
Musically speaking, the album is impressive, or at least determined to succeed. It’s a confusing mix of the celestial and the decaying. But confusion is where CocoRosie are most comfortable. They record albums in bathrooms, sing like they’re still struggling through a speech class, and make noise with anything in their immediate vicinity. Take the album’s opening track, “After The Afterlife.” The song splits open with speaker-shifting spacy buzzing followed by an angelic chorus of “Welcome to the afterlife” repeated until you feel like you’ve just parted a curtain of stars leading to God’s bathroom. Then, as things often happen when CocoRosie are in charge, things get a little darker. A pulsing beat collapses on the melody and the angelic voices are replaced by Bianca’s desolate croon and a drunk-sounding piano.
Two of the most interesting tracks on the album, “Tearz For Animals,” and the closer “Poison,” feature Antony Hegarty (Hercules and Love Affair, Antony And The Johnsons). He’s collaborated with the duo before (on “Beautiful Boyz” off Noah’s Ark) but given the significance of these tracks in Grass Widow, it seems the trio has finally worked through that initial haze of where they all stand as collaborators. Whereas in “Beautiful Boyz” there seems to be a hesitation or lack of connection between CocoRosie and Hegarty, “Tearz For Animals” allows Hegarty’s crystalized vibrato to lift up the sisters’ vocals and weave its way in and out of the track like a post-pubescent Tiny Tim stuck inside a pinball machine.
The most obvious departure from their previous work is “Far Away,” which, though saddled with that same moist-soil solemnity we’ve grown to expect, utilizes synths and keys to create an atmosphere that seems to be fighting against itself. Soft and unassuming beeps are suddenly sliced by a brief screech, like an alarm half-a-mile away, which builds until the song breaks down into a dance hall-esque montage of the previous three minutes. This mid-album surprise is followed by “Roots Of My Hair,” which is arguably the most standard CocoRosie blurry lullaby. There’s a toy piano and slowly plodding drums, then a sitar? Some comfort in knowing not much has changed.
“End Of Time” has CocoRosie aggressively relying on the strange baby-rap the duo continually returns to, because it’s become their signature sound as well as their most frequently scorned one. At the start of the song, “I don’t need no human friends” falls heavily from Bianca’s mouth—a sentiment that lingers throughout the track—and plods around until the end. The intro to “End Of Time” was used in a live performance of “Werewolf” in 2007, when the pair turned the gem of a song into a rap parody of itself.
As far as low points go, “Broken Chariot” is pretty low. If it’s possible for a song to take itself too seriously, this one does. It makes heavy use of what I’m assuming is some kind of wooden flute, which is either a misplaced nod to their Native American heritage or just annoying. In the soundtrack of National Geographic documentaries, “Broken Chariot” would be playing during the moment the Plains animals reemerge after a cooling rain. And everyone changes the channel during that part.
Tales of A Grass Widow is not a flawless album—in fact, it’s very flawed. But CocoRosie want it to be flawed, I think. Most of what the pair produces, both live and recorded, is flowery, crowded or out-of-touch with reality. But we’re into it anyway. CocoRosie doesn’t make albums destined for critical acclaim and prizes in cultural sensitivity. They make albums that make you squint and stare at the floor and convince yourself you like it, maybe. And somehow, you’ll find yourself listening until you’re sure you do.