La Maison de Mon Reve
Touch and Go
he songs of the eclectic duo CocoRosie are delicate constructions, held together by lightly dancing acoustic guitars, cheap toy effects and the gorgeous harmonizing of sisters Bianca and Sierra Cassidy. This musical palette is hardly original—it’s been the accessible, easy pillow on which too much mediocre 90s indie rock has rested its tired head—but CocoRosie prove that, in the right hands and with the right songs, even a sound as potentially worn-out as this can be revived and infused with new life.
In La Maison de Mon Reve, that new life comes primarily via the sisters’ natural, nearly symbiotic vocal interplay. While Sierra is a classically trained vocalist (and is perfectly capable of erupting into an operatic howl, though she reins that aspect almost entirely in on this record), Bianca has a child-like moan that spits out a disconcerting breed of white-girl blues. The contrast between Sierra’s soaring melodic lines and Bianca’s down-to-earth resignation is the emotional heart of CocoRosie’s music, also lending it an off-kilter vibe to their already tweaked indie-pop.
The pair’s songs have a charming ambiguity that draws the listener almost irresistibly into their world; the vocals summon gender-switching narrators who are like slightly abstract characters populating a modern fairy tale. The opening “Terrible Angels” features Bianca’s fragile croak, singing about “blue-eyed babes / Raised as Hitler’s little brides and sons” while a cacophony of lo-budget peeps and blips ring out behind the steady acoustic guitar line.
On other songs, the sisters take on personae that seem wholly foreign to them. “By Your Side”, with its triumphal refrain “All I want with my life / Is to be a housewife”, might read like an entirely un-ironic peon to the marital tradition, until casually delivered lines like “I’ll wear your black eye / Bake you apple pies” completely throw off the original interpretation. The song is filled out by stark, solitary-sounding piano notes, crinkling percussion and Bianca’s voice, sped-up like an old 45 played at 78, high-pitched and crooning “I’ll always be by your side / Even when you’re down and out”—this part, rather than acting like a chorus in a traditional pop song, is used as a compositional element, betraying a Hip-Hop influence that otherwise resides only in the occasional beats.
“Tahiti Rain Song” is just as fractured, burying the actual song deep in tin-can production and rushing water that makes it sound like it was actually recorded on a Tahitian beach rather than a Parisian apartment. Over a minimal backing of tinny percussion and a weedy, plaintive flute melody, Bianca sings in her throaty, childlike voice a near-incomprehensible series of wordplays to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.” Elsewhere, even when the pair is being more direct, their tunes have an oblique charm that belies their simplicity. “Jesus Loves Me” consists of a handful of repeated guitar chords and shaking percussion, but its ironic lyrics (“Jesus loves me / But not my wife / Not my nigger friends / Or their nigger lives”) make the song seem more appropriate coming out of the whisker-speckled mouth of a grizzly Southern old-timer than from these youthful bohemian girls.
Throughout, it’s not quite clear what CocoRosie hopes to accomplish with this role- and rule-bending narrator confusion, but one thing that it does accomplish is that La Maison de Mon Reve has a strange, mysterious narrative quality, like a story with all the details intentionally left out. Hints of prostitution pop up frequently enough (on the gorgeous ballad “Lyla”, the brief interlude “Not For Sale” and elsewhere) that I could almost interpret this as a story about a heroine’s flight into and then out of the sex trade, but that’s never convincingly established as the only thread present here.
La Maison De Mon Reve is a highly promising debut from this duo. Bianca and Sierra’s raw, world-weary poetry rubs comfortably against the child’s lullaby naiveté in their songs, creating an aura of brittle sadness that shrouds the songs’ tentatively sketched characters from the cold. What’s so compelling about CocoRosie, and what keeps me returning to this music almost compulsively, is how cagily it resists both interpretation and categorization. La Maison is hardly just indie-pop, but neither does its token appropriation of Hip-Hop, sampling, Blues or Classical make it fit more comfortably into any of those categories. And the duo’s songs have an unsettling lack of resolution, a sense that when the song is over, all you’ve gotten is a vague peek behind the dingy torn curtain of some Parisian backroom. It’s enough, though. Just enough.
Reviewed by: Ed Howard
Reviewed on: 2004-03-25