The eccentric group CocoRosie, fronted by sisters Bianca ("Coco") and Sierra ("Rosie") Casady, can't be criticized for sitting on their hands during the three-year break from their last excellent release, The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn. In between global touring, including a 2008 performance with The Royal Dutch Orchestra in Amsterdam, CocoRosie released a 7" single and a limited edition EP, Coconuts, Plenty of Junk Food. Elder sister Sierra performed a libretto, "Cellar Door," at London's ICA museum with CocoRosie instrumentalist Gael Rakotondrabe as part of an art instillation piece by Loris Gréaud. Younger sister Bianca accompanied the publication of her book Le Combat Spiritue with an exhibition of her visual artwork in Groningen, Netherlands and converted a Parisian storefront into a gallery/performance space called Mad Vicky's Tea Gallery.
Raised in a nomadic upbringing, the Casady sisters exhibit a restless yet sensitive aspect in their musical work, drawing on a mélange of influences ranging from Native American chants to baroque to pop. For Grey Oceans, their fourth release, and their Sub Pop debut, CocoRosie crafted their most distinct and daring recording to date. Giving more prominence to Rakotondrabe's contributions (he composed and performed all the keyboard and piano parts), while refining their original musical collages (including toy pianos, early synthesizers and spoken word), Grey Oceans is a challenging and often subverting work.
Recorded in Argentina, Germany, France, Australia and New York, Grey Oceans is a true "World" document. The tabla-driven "Smokey Taboo," for example, draws from East Indian folk music while blending in operatic vocals and harp, offering an unorthodox arrangement. The title track ("Grey Oceans") is a spare ballad that exposes the sisters' unique vocal delivery, one that is both young and old. Sierra's naïve lead, coupled with her sister's ghostly background accompaniment, produces a sound as if from a child trapped in an elderly body.
Rakotondrabe provides the spine of each song with his subtle piano/keyboard parts, inserting skeletal rhythms and melody lines in the heart of the multi-layered, dense compositions. He begins "The Moon Asked The Crow" with a piano line reminiscent of an old Russian ballad that falls into a Wu Tang Clan-like hip hop beat. The off-kilter sway of "Lemonade," with its pairing of a fuzzy synthesizer with a minimal piano counterpart that gives way to an elegiac chorus, exhibits a majestic beauty.
Grey Oceans is a deconstruction of traditional children's ballads and hymns, as if fueled by Grimm's fairytales. The gothic, Stephen Sondheim-esque theatrical element to the work is hard to deny. But it is how the Casady sisters arrange and produce Grey Oceans, with its bold and original juxtapositions of geographical as well as time period influences, that marks its brilliance. Never has deconstruction sounded so good.