From the first song on Tales of a GrassWidow, it’s pretty clear that CocoRosie have not changed much. Rather than reinvent themselves, as they sort of tried to on 2010′s disastrous Grey Oceans, Bianca and Sierra Cassidy (Coco and Rosie, respectively) went back to what made their early works, especially Noah’s Ark, such fascinating if at times frustrating pieces of weirded-out folk music. This is evident right from the beginning, as “After the Afterlife” commences with a heavenly introduction to said afterlife, before wiping away the reverb and allowing the sisters’ voices to shine through the muddle. This creates a stirring reintroduction to the duo, one that has more success in captivating its targeted audience than an entire LP did in 2010.
Right after that comes the first collaboration with Antony Hegarty, of sadsack favorites Antony and the Johnsons, in the form of “Tears For Animals”, which goes electronic in tone while singing of the natural world. Hegarty‘s downtrodden vocals are not for everyone, but they fit CocoRosie’s palette well, counteracting their bizarre vocal inflections with his baritone and unmoving rumble of a voice. Album closer “Poison” also features Hegarty, although it goes in a more off-kilter direction, warping his voice around rustles and echoes, giving him a more ghostly presence, hovering above the slow burn album ender. It’s interesting to note that Hegarty‘s presence does not bring down the pace of the album, instead helping to ground it more than sink it. Small doses, it turns out, do wonders for his particular brand of beaten down pathology.
Elsewhere, the Cassidy sisters employ their usual haunted production, yet it’s cleaner here than it’s ever been before. This is thanks to Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurðsson, who has previously worked with Bjork and Feist along with CocoRosie‘s best album, The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn. His touch seems to reel in the more self-indulgent tendencies for the sisters, leading to exciting songs like “Villain”, which bounces around its own head, employing ethereal organs from a death carnival along with a drum machine splatter rhythm.
It’s a mixture of old and new that works so well that it actually makes the weaker songs on the album all the more noticable because, at times, CocoRosie can still reach for uncomfortable extremes. Lead single “Gravediggress”, for example, runs out of steam early, yet trudges on until it becomes about 2 minutes too long for its own ideas. The cooing singing doesn’t do it any favors, either.
Therein lies the main issue that holds Tales of a GrassWidow back from being something more timeless: the very sense of time within the album seems off, with songs seeming like they drag longer than they do. This is mostly due to the intricate world building that the duo employ, which is admirable when it works but frustrating when it does not. It feels like the album was recorded on one take, with no pause for edits or second opinions. While obviously not the case, it’s difficult to sit through a song like “Roots of My Hair”, which almost hits the 6-minute mark while sounding like a purposefully exhausting cover of a Natasha Bedingfield song.
The Cassidy sisters’ biggest strength is in the impact that comes from the clash of their jarring voices with their whimsical nature, but that inevitably means that clunkers will occur. Tales of a GrassWidow is no exception, and while it minimizes the amount of misses, it only leaves the listener with curiosity for what can happen when they finally put it all together at once.