Op-Ed: An Artists’ Dialogue On CocoRosie’s Grey Oceans
A few years ago I wrote a positive review of CocoRosie’s The Adventures of Ghosthorse And Stillborn. Too positive, it turns out: The publication that assigned it killed the piece at the 11th hour and instead ran a snarky takedown. I’d never had that happen before and I’ve been championing challenging music for a long while. (This was 2007. I ran it elsewhere.) At the time I noticed Antony also liked the record. John Darnielle, who called it his favorite album of the year, did too. As he put it: “At its lyrical best, it inhabits its own country, unashamed of real poetry and willing to put in the hard work necessary to inhabit a space unlike anybody else’s.” Truth. Plenty of others like it, of course — though, oddly, when not spewing vinegar, there were mostly crickets from other music journalists.
Last month I posted the video for “Lemonade” from CocoRosie’s fourth album Grey Oceans. It’s a gorgeously surreal, intimately familial clip that not surprisingly didn’t get much traction. This started me thinking about the ongoing, almost singularly strange reception Bianca and Sierra Casady receive in the American press.
Grey Oceans is the Casady sister’s subtlest, most cohesive statement. (And it is a statement, something we need more of these days.) Even when they play “Hopscotch,” the feeling remains a kind of grayish blue. It may seem downcast in a way, but like all of their work, it’s uplifting even when discussing tears, lost relations, a fear of sharks, these grey (and increasingly black) oceans. As always, there are plenty of dance beats (“Fairy Paradise”), but nothing as outrageously disco as last year’s “God Has A Voice, She Speaks Through Me.” It’s for singing with a flashlight under a blanket. I’ve always found CocoRosie’s work honest and bravely naked — some of the most emotionally bare music you’ll hear. Which is part of why the shouts of “pretentious” confuse me. They give a lot of themselves, something people tend to miss because of the fake beards and outfits. This album’s no different — a strange mix of strength and fragility. Also, their ear for melody is crystalline, their compositions so weirdly fathomless. It’s hard listening to the title track without getting goosebumps.
My interest in the group — along with the strength of the new album mixed and the dismissal/lack of considered dialogue it’s again received — led me to a discussion with Antony. Instead of cheerleading in private, we decided to reach out to a few other folks for their thoughts on CocoRosie and Grey Oceans. We returned, hopefully a little wiser, with write-ups from Yoko Ono, Jamie Stewart, Annie Clark, Nico Muhly, JD Samson, Doveman, Wild Beasts, and others.
I have concluded that the reception of CocoRosie in the US reflects the denial of a greater feminist issue, an ecological issue, a racial issue, a spiritual issue. If we cannot face that our collective brokenness in these areas is the rockbed of our crisis as a virulent species, then we will continue in our blindness to dismiss our American art revolutionaries who are out in the field, working through exactly these issues. For me Cocorosie’s new album Grey Oceans is perhaps the most important new music coming out of the US this year. It is no surprise that as the sea turns black in the gulf with no end in sight in the midst of the biggest ecological disaster in US history, CocoRosie are the only ones to hit the zeitgeist with an album filled with psychic omniscience, entitled “Grey Oceans.” And yet it seems to be the album the indie US press doesn’t want to talk about. Bianca and Sierra Casady paints pictures of lost children across a broken land, feral, elemental spirits who roam the dreamscapes of our world, naming perpetrators, painting their memories, recovering and reclaiming power. They are unafraid to manifest their vision that the application of magical creativity could be a balm for aching souls in a struggling world. They take risks that no other artists in the scene dare to, and the (predominantly white hetero male) music press punishes them for it. In the artistic community, CocoRosie are treasured. Their costumes and visual aesthetics are a vital part of their expression, revealing further illustration of their ideas and their inspirations and creating a striking format for the shamanistic shapeshifting that occurs in their live performances (in some ways they are the feminist branch of a voyage that Animal Collective in their boyish and heralded way have undertaken in parallel) and yet as women Cocorosie are dismissed because their visual presentation frustrates many male writers’ abilities to sexualize them. Who are you assigning to think on your behalf?
JD Samson (MEN, Le Tigre)
I constantly hear the word “haunting” to describe this band, but I think that’s deeply inaccurate. The word is “inspirational.” “Uplifting.” Simplicity building music that feels you. Instead of you feeling it. This is simply songwriting. A genuinely sensitive and organic response to the slow world. Without taking up too much space. Or trying too hard. This is polite musicianship. Respecting themselves. Respecting the space each instrument has surrounding it. With forays into every genre you could ever think of. This is complimentary crossover. Mazes and wide-open spheres getting split in places you never dreamt they could. Put back together again with nothing but easy love. This is unaffectedly opening up your heart and mind and letting music make drip sand castles on every beach i can think of.
Hayden Thorpe (Wild Beasts)
The beauty of CocoRosie is how utterly uninhibited they are in what they do. It comes through in their instruments, their voices and their words. The rarity and braveness of such a thing is to be cherished and admired. They exist totally under their own lexicon, sounding as if electronic music was actually conceived in Baroque Europe and classical music in Doo-wop era America. It is these contortionist-like shapes that they form which allows them to occupy that sweet spot on the axis between ancient and ultra modern.
Grey Oceans by CocoRosie shows us a sliver of a secret ocean of high waves we wish to be part of in our dreams. CocoRosie is the shower we need now in the musical desert. “God Has a Voice She Speaks Through Me” … What a line!
CocoRosie are magpie queens, who collect objects and bring them into not only a nest, but an entire universe of their own creation. Listen to just half a second of their music, and the incense, rituals, and grammar of this world unfolds. As an artist, I cannot overstate my admiration for their simultaneous embrace of the digital and the organic; the world they hinted at in La Maison de Mon Rêve had as much technical prowess behind it as it did emotionally shattering music and lyrics. I’ve always liked their ability to insist on the irregular shapes of their music: trees growing through the sidewalks of pop songwriting. While each of their albums has irritated me as much as delighted, it’s always in the same way I am irritated by not being able to speak Chinese when I walk through the supermarket under the Manhattan bridge, or by watching the ease with which deaf lovers address each other across the noise of a crowded restaurant. I want to achieve a fluency in their world, and with each album, I feel myself coming closer to a child-like ability to phonate.
CocoRosie’s music is shockingly beautiful, impossibly engaging, and ultimately, some of my favorite music being made today.
Thomas Bartlett (Doveman)
Listening to Cocorosie, I feel like I’m being invited into a secret garden filled with the most precious and exotic flora and fauna from a distant, beautiful future, or from some past that never happened — it’s an experience both wondrously strange, and deeply, comfortingly familiar.
CocoRosie’s new album Grey Oceans for me is like a telegraph from one of my old childhood dreams, hallucinatory and haunted, yet filled with beauty. How people could criticize a band for “creating their own worlds within worlds” these days is beyond me. As much as I can be jaded and critical of my peers around me, I can’t deny that bands like CocoRosie give me hope in the “music industry climate” these days … Sure they can be dangerous, controversial, and sometimes ugly, however they’re strange, exotic, worldly, and goddammit forgive me for saying this FUNKY!! Listen to this record … is all I’m saying … it will do you no harm … or hopefully it will…
Last night I was in New York, tonight I am in Toronto, tomorrow I will be in Montreal and I think CocoRosie, my darlings, will be there too … I think I might actually be able to see my darlings do their gorgeous new work unless they are on the same time as me which would suck, but be typical. Anyway, I love the new record and was listening to “Lemonade” in my convertible in Los Angeles the other day and came across a lemonade stand near my house run by two young enterprising boys in my Leave It To Beaver-ville neighborhood … they were so cute and it was just so perfect I had to stop and buy a lemonade. It was 50 cents for a big paper cup of fresh California lemonade .. .homemade, from the tree in the back yard … not the mix… Bianca and Sierra would have just loved it, and by the way these two boys loved CocoRosie’s music and so do i!
Jamie Stewart (Xiu Xiu)
CocoRosie have always frightened me a little bit. I don’t know them personally very well — if at all, really — but we have met a few times. Each time I have been fascinated and concerned for my state of mind. I like that in a band. They always strike me across the knuckles as so wrong in so many ways that it is wonderful actually, like when you look into a cloud of poison gas.
So many white North East and Oakland bands are trying to be and play black but only come across as clueless, racist idiots. CocoRosie has always had what John Darnielle — a huge fan of theirs — described as race issues but they seemed to deal with race as just that, an issue. not like fake Ivy League Afropop rip-off assholes who are, as their wealthy grandparents before them, plundering race without any consideration for the implications. Coco race dives into race in a way that — as I said — scares me. Scares me because it is so insane and so bold and it is also respectful and feels true. Thank you so much for making art that is freaking me out.
Annie Clark (St. Vincent)
The following is an excerpt from Air Guitar, a collection of essays by former art gallerist and long-time music critic, Dave Hickey. A bit of context for this essay, entitled “My Weimar”: Dave recalls the lectures of his college theater professor, Herr Volbach, a German-Jewish refugee from the second World War. These lectures would have taken place during the mid-1960’s. When I was asked to analyze the critical discourse directed at CocoRosie, this essay came right to the surface of my mind. It celebrates the subversive spirit with which CocoRosie create their art, as well as gives origin to the controversy that such art inspires. The third paragraph, in particular, resonates with me. And, of course, don’t be Aryan muscle-boys.
“These muscle-bound whiners,” he said, “they do not want to make the new world. They want to take their power back. They want to turn back the clock. You should not let them do it.” He then proceeded to explain to us that, in case we hadn’t heard, there had been two great wars in this century, and a number of smaller ones, into which most of the able-bodied and apparently heterosexual men in Europe and the United States had been drafted — excepting those in critical industries, in government, or in education. Moreover, he pointed out, the arts — theater, dance, music, painting, and sculpture — were not critical industries, nor were they government, nor were they education. They were little businesses, so all the heterosexual men were drafted out of them. “So who is left?” Volbach asked, thrusting his finger into the air and swaying behind it, “Queers and women and a bunch of old Jews! Suddenly, they are the arts! They do a little business in the night. They get paid a little for it and do their best, while the government and the goyim are out killing one another.”
“Then the war is over, and the big, brave soldiers come home — feeling very angry and very heroic — and what do they find? They find the world has changed. This was true in the Weimar and this is true again today. All these soldiers look around and see the culture of their nation being run by effeminate, Semitic, commercial pansies! And they are shocked! For the first time in history, the songs we sing, the pictures we see, and the plays we attend are not being dispensed by over-educated, Aryan muscle-boys, and these muscle-boys are very upset. But what can they do? Business is business after all. Even Aryan muscle-boys believe in that, and as long as pictures are being bought and plays are being attended and songs are being sung…?”
“Well, you might think they can’t do anything,” Volbach said slyly, “but you would be wrong. Because the muscle-boys still control the government and the universities. The professors and the bureaucrats, they were not drafted. They are cozy in their little Bunde pleasing no one but themselves. And they tell themselves that even though business is business, culture is culture too, and the culture is public business. So all the muscle-boy artists and writers, they will become professors and the darlings of professors, and they will teach the young to revere their pure, muscle-boy art, because it is good for them, and they will teach women and Jews and queers to make muscle-boy art, too. And it will be very pure, because they are muscle-boys and they don’t have to please anyone. So there will be no cabaret, no pictures, no fantasy or flashing lights, no filth or sexy talk, no cruelty, no melodies, no laughter, no Max Reinhardt, no Ur-Faust, no “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” And nobody will love it. And nobody will pay money to own it or see it, but that will not matter.”
“The government will pay for it, and the universities, because paying your own money for culture, and making your own money out of it, this is a Jew thing, a queer thing, a silly woman thing. It means you are not satisfied with what the professors provide, with what Reichminister tells you is good. It means you want more and that is unpatriotic…” Here Volbach paused for a moment, and even though I hadn’t said a single word, he fixed his gaze on me and continued. “So all you Aryan muscle-boys down there at the end of the table, Don’t be Aryan muscle-boys! I have seen enough official culture. I will teach you how to hit your marks and set the lights and make the tempo float. The rest you will have to learn from the women and the queers — out in the dark. Also, don’t be too artistic to count your own receipts. Also, carry your pistol. There are thugs out there.”