Listening to CocoRosie has always felt like eavesdropping on your crazy neighbors. You draw up close to the wall and hear all those muffled thumps and shrieks, and you draw all kinds of conclusions. When it grates on you, you think things like, "What is that, a mound of feral cats in a wind tunnel?" But when it draws you in, like those crazy neighbors, you call around to friends, you tell them they have to hear this crazy shit.
So love or hate CocoRosie, you've got to admit that they go for it. They make wild sounds and deal in their own brand of abrasive pretension. But when they're writing good songs -- like "Terrible Angels" from 2004's La Maison De Mon Reve -- or whipping up a hard-to-ignore sinister thump the way they did on 2007's The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn, you can kind of deal with their schtick.
But on Grey Oceans, they're not doing either of those things. This isn't the brash challenge of clunky neo-folk these ladies have been throwing at us, inviting us to sneer or sing along. Grey Oceans, if it's a neighbor, is the kind of muffling sound you wonder about, but not enough to get off the couch and really listen.
The album deals mostly in a wandering atmosphere that never quite grounds itself or finds melody or rhythm enough to catch its stride. The title track shows perfectly how this album comes off the rails. It's a basic piano ballad, with faint sounds circling it ineffectually, too slow and threadbare to hold up when its melody is so aimless. And even the unruly curl of those vocals can't hide lyrics like "I'm watching myself like an old movie on color TV." What happened to the nasally venom these girls used to spit, even at their quietest? Where did the simmering energy of their other albums go?
There are the rare moments here that show it hasn't left completely. "Lemonade" is moody and surging, the kind of lofty yet pulsing song that reminds us how CocoRosie pulled such viceral reactions out of us for the last six years. But all around it are slack-yet-shimmering keys and overly simple beats that don't give any of this enough heft to keep the sounds from drifting away nearly as soon as they're played. No matter your feeling on CocoRosie, whether love them for their innovation or hate them for their grating pretension, when you hear Grey Oceans you might find yourself missing those more challenging (or more inventive) days. Because this album isn't likely to incite any reaction one way or the other, so you might as well go back to eavesdropping on the cat lady next door.
Grey Oceans, Cocorosie's fourth full-length and first for Sub Pop, was born from the Casady sisters' travels in 2008, when they recorded with musicians from Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Berlin, New York, and Paris. An important development leading up to the recording was their improvisations with jazz pianist Gael Rakotondrabe, with whom they fleshed out several of the songs. The aesthetic direction that the band has taken with this album can be gleaned from the single “God Has a Voice, She Speaks Through Me,” which was recorded during the same sessions. The aesthetic direction that led them to that album art can only be guessed at.