Friday, December 17, 2010

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.

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.”

VIA Stereogum

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