CocoRosie - Noah's Ark (Touch and Go)


Is it racist to tar all Americans with the same bush, I mean brush?

Of the national characteristics that become stereotypes, like our supposed stiff upper lippiness and the Germans’ efficiency, one of the supposed distinguishing features of the American is his and her lack of an irony gland. It is true that you don’t have to know what it is to have it, and equally true that if you don’t have it, you’ll never get it, but it is sadly truer that, on the very rare occasions that it does manifest in an American artist, it’s so noticeable that it screams at you in neon green, which kind of defeats the object.

But there it is.

One of the reasons that CocoRosie chose a stage makeup that includes painted-on twirly false moustachios and curlicued eyebrows must be that one each of their real eyebrows is permanently cocked in the ‘oh yeah?’ position. They are just so hip to the ironies it’s scary.

Noah's Ark is the Casady sisters' first 'proper' release, since last year's La Maison de Mon Rêve (also on Touch and Go) was, by all accounts, a fluke. Concocted for fun in the bathroom of Sierra's Paris apartment during a drop-in visit by younger sis Bianca after a bohemian upbringing and a long estrangement, they just burnt it to disk for a few friends, one of whom must have accidentally dropped it in to the guys at T&G ... la la la ...

Yeah.

So anyway, Noah's Ark is deliberate, this time, composed mostly on the road, riding on the back of the fairly phenomenal underground success of that extraordinary début, and assembled with a little help from a few friends, including Devendra Benhart and Antony (of ...and the Johnsons). Actually, it only lacked the participation of their other friends - Joanne Newsom and Animal Collective, to have made it the definitive collaborative album of the lo-fi nu-folk that's currently so hi-rising out of the Brooklyn indie scene.

You do have to be supremely confident about your audience's irony antennae to offer lyrics such as

'God must have been all colour-blind.
If I made the world it would be all-white'
(Armageddon)

Such careless non-pc-ness is just one of the things that distinguishes CocoRosie from the crowd. The in-your-face wigga thing is a commonplace in the hiphop scene, after all. It's only us fusty ole librals that squirm in our seats about such stuff. And anyway if we’d been listening properly to La Maison de Mon Rêve we’d have been forewarned as to how the irony factor works à propos these gals’ take on race and gospel:

‘Jesus loves me
But not my wife
Not my nigger friends
Or their nigger lives
But jesus loves me
That's for sure
'Cause the bible tells me so’
(Jesus Loves Me)

Blind Willie Johnson it ain’t, but as a significant part of CocoRosie’s provenance does seem to relate to the Mississipi Delta Blues, for whatever reason, one just has to trust that, when they sing something like that, they're doing it in blackface, as it were, both as homage and provocation, and let it go at that.

The sophomore, traditionally, is the difficult one, and rare indeed is the second album from someone whose début knocked you off your feet that doesn't - even if you won't admit it even to your nearest and dearest - disappoint, just a little. The sophomore is the tomorrow after the first frantic weeks of the love affair that you never wanted to end - the point at which, all passion spent, you begin to think, so where do we go from here?

Not the easy route, that’s for sure. One of the joys of enjoying CocoRosie is in the endless failure to keep up – it’s like trying to focus on those squiggly things on the inside of your eyelids when you’re lying in the sun. No sooner do you think you’ve got a handle on what they’re doing than they perform yet another feat of carelessly casual musical gymnastics and you have to scurry over to the other side of the planet where they’re doing something completely different. So, apart from the obvious technical stuff – their constantly shifting voices from the operatic to the squawky telephonic, their naïve accompaniments on acoustic instruments – piano, guitar, harp – mixed with a total farmyard-cum-junkyard of quirky samples, and their off-the-wall tangential lyrics (usually rendered half-inaudible in the mix) – description can only add confusion to befuddlement.

Beautiful Boyz, for example, is in part homage to Jean Genet, the French intellectual poet/playwright/criminal who was the darling of the European ‘fifties and ‘sixties gay underground when it was still a dangerously queer underground. That CocoRosie should have invited Antony to guest on it is a total coûp de théatre – his quivering diva coloratura chorus between Bianca’s breathless squeaky narrative verses, set against a few sparse honky tonk piano chords and a listless scratch beats background makes this a standout vignette, a startlingly affecting secular eulogy. Either I’m a failed fag-hag’s falafel, or this song is going to become a gay anthem up there with It’s a Sin and People are People. Brilliant.

Noah’s Ark, the title track, on the other hand, is so utterly banal in its superficially childish tree-hugginess that you think – whu? A hymn to nature (nothing wrong with that) that includes a biblical misunderstanding so funny that you’re left wondering – that irony thing again – what sort of a performance is really going on here?

‘Noah’s Ark came to my home one day
with all his animals
and he took me away.’

There are only two songs on the album that might be called love songs: Tekno Love Song is one half of a virtual lover’s lament – ‘one day we’ll meet’ – sung to a simple harp accompaniment in what feels like an empty chatroom in a derelict Turkish bathhouse. Honey and Tar, the album’s closer, is a guitar-accompanied duet, with one sister singing up close in her ‘straight’ voice, and the other way back in her Montmartre bathroom using the squawky voice, and, whereas it seems to be in unison, it’s not – they’re both singing slightly different words, which means that you’re obliged to make a real effort to hear what they’re saying. Which I’m sure is the whole point. Compared with By Your Side on La Maison de Mon Rêve it doesn’t quite do it for me, but there you go – what’s a sophomore reaction without a smidgeon of cavilling?

If you thought the singing triplets in Sylvain Chomet's Belleville Rendez-vous were the coolest thing since Billie Holiday, you'll have no problem with CocoRosie, who are absolutely sans pareil the coolest sisters since those amazing animated scionettes of Belleville. We whose jaws dropped on first hearing La Maison de Mon Rêve and haven't been able to talk properly since - eye ya ink i ooj a keygaw aw da tine - can breathe easy that sucking sophomore syndrome was never really going to happen with these guys. Clearly, they're still going to be dealing aces from their voluminous boho sleeves when boho comes round for the umpteenth time. In a scrupulously ironic manner, naturellement.

 

August 2005

 

 

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