Review Summary: An intriguing, mistifying, and beautiful album. (And don't let the atrocious cover art dissuade you too much.)
CocoRosie may be one of the more divisive acts in all of independent music. Tagged under the freak-folk umbrella early in their career, they have often joined in with (and/or been discussed alongside) the likes of Devender Banhart, Jana Hunter, and other members of Banhart's "Golden Apples of the Sun" project. Many of the artists included on that album have since shed themselves of the "freak folk" moniker, including Joanna Newsom, Iron and Wine, and Antony Hegarty. CocoRosie have not quite done so, but instead have moved into their own little nook, ever since 2005's "Noah's Ark" took them in that direction. What would their nook be called? Maybe "psych-pop" instead of folk, but it's really become quite an unclassifiable mix of hip hop beats, organic acoustics, and the pair's entirely different but equally unique, keening voices. That nook has been practically perfected, and taken a step further on their fourth full-length, 'Grey Oceans.'
You may have noticed the lack of information about the sisters' own odd background story. But I have excluded it on purpose because, you see, their history is less relevant now than ever. In the beginning, it may have been the key factor on if people tuned in to really check them out. It was very interesting, I'll admit that. But with 'Grey Oceans,' Sierra and Bianca Cassidy have truly released an album that seems to be entirely themselves, without being self-conscious or tired out in the trough of their much-repeated backstory (see: Bon Iver's cabin fever beauty 'For Emma, Forever Ago'.) And because of this new true, blossomed freedom, 'Grey Oceans' may be their best and most intricate album to date.
That being said, the whole thing kicks off with one of its worst songs. 'Trinity's Crying' is essentially a small-scale droning slew of minor guitar plucks and oddly affected vocals, until Sierra comes in repeating the title line as if it's supposed to be some triumphant climax, when really it renders as extremely futile and pointless. It goes nowhere. This may give a good glimpse at the darker sides of the album to come, but it is just done in such a painstaking, slow, and meandering manner. The only true redeeming quality is the way the next track feels after listening to the opener. "Smokey Taboo," is one of the duo's best yet, with its Eastern-tinged instrumentals, Bianca's trademark talk-singing, and Sierra's seriously gorgeous chops melting all over the back half.
'Grey Oceans' is a generally slow affair. It's their longest album yet, clocking in at almost 50 minutes, and also their most complex. Generally, their albums seemed to end right at the right time, and this one is no exception. It's paced very well despite the more funereal feel of the core of the album. Song titles such as "Undertaker," and "Gallows" provide a pretty clear example of the album's tone, as does the eerie music and carefully heavy vocals therewithin. This tone is lifted every now and then, like on the creepy but cheery sounding "Hopscotch" and the wonderful poppy chorus of album highlight "Lemonade." Or when Sierra lights up and works wonders on the very calm and pretty "RIP Burnface." The best track here, the title track, is a surprisingly gentle piano ballad. Bianca's voice loses its general stark creek for the most part, allowing her to sing an odd but personal ode to love ("The stubble on his face hurt me / When we fell on each other's faces,") all while Sierra fades in and out with her lovely operatic flutters, making this the obvious standout.
The album stumbles here and there, as most of their albums do. The aformentioned "Gallows" is an almost unbearably slow and spacious glacier of a song, barely containing anything to speak of. Vocals shift in and out, scratching against the other muted elements of the song. And the closer "Here I Come" is their worst finale yet, occupying most of its space with a simple loop of beats and processed "ah ah ah"s over a frustratingly obnoxious spoken-word ramble. It's such an underwhelming way to end such an intriguing, mistifying, and beautiful album. And just like their other records, this is not a perfect set. However, when these girls are on, they are really on. And there's really no denying that these two are constantly evolving and moving in the right direction, consistently delivering extremely detailed, very interesting, and fantastically composed works of music.
Download: Smokey Taboo, Grey Oceans