Sisters Bianca and Sierra Casady, who've been making music together as CocoRosie since 2003, are no strangers to the nightlife. Their singular blend of opera, hip hop, toy-box experimentation and pop R&B thrives on constant friction between the hoary and the trendy. Appropriately, the sisters split their time between Paris and New York City, and, though Bianca's beautifully eerie voice makes her sound like someone who wanders the halls of a crumbling Victorian mansion in a moldering gown, she's actually a stylish young urbanite more likely to be found at the hippest Williamsburg haunts.
But on their third and most challenging album to date, The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn, the Casady sisters discovered a different kind of nightlife. Over the course of two months, they wrote the album on what Bianca Casady describes as a "misty, dreary old farm" that their mother found in southern France. Without phones or computers to distract them, they slept all day and worked all night. The farm's uncanny nocturnal aura shaped their writing.
"We were really moved by the landscape," Casady explains, "which is quite unusual for us. We're usually drawing directly from our imaginations, but something about this landscape allowed all these autobiographical tales to take place in one context. It pushed us further into our own realm."
The lyrics on the album are a typically inscrutable mixture of dark sexual energy, oblique confessionals and Dadaist cut-ups, creating less of a narrative than a swirl of overlapping apparitions. The characters on the album include people from the farm's old graveyard, geese and a sick horse. Paired with Bianca's lilting vocal cadences, the characters make Adventures seem like a mentally unstable nursery rhyme.
Casady regards the album as "subterranean" in its imagery and its sense of burbling up from dark subconscious wells. "A lot of the imagery is coming from underground," she says. "Worms, mud, bodies, roots. Even the syncopated rhythms and bassy aspects are part of this groundedness."
Indeed, despite the quaint circumstances of Adventures' creation and its sometimes lugubrious themes, it's CocoRosie's poppiest effort to date. "Rainbowarriors" is an ineffably weird yet catchy take on modern bubblegum pop, "Promise" is a slinky rap number, and "Werewolf" approximates modern R&B.
"There's something oddly liberating about working in really popular styles of music," Casady explains, "making something that could almost, but not quite, blend in with what's on the radio, and still presenting something very intimate and honest, in a way that's not obscured by our more cobwebby sounds."
This isn't to say that the cobwebs have all been swept away. They linger in the corners of the pop tracks and completely overtake the broken music-box ballads like "Bloody Twins." Their tension with the pop phrasings is emblematic of CocoRosie's ongoing project to reconcile the irreconcilable. Nowhere is this more evident than in the clashing tonal registers of "Japan," a song about wartime fear rendered with a lusty cartoon-lobster voice and schmaltzy Caribbean strains.
"We have a real instinct toward creating dialogues," Casady says. "So between the two extremes that exist in a lot of our songs, instead of a message, there's a dialogue happening. Something seems to be unearthed in the pairing of two odd things, even if one can't always put a finger on what it is."
Onstage, CocoRosie reconstructs this dialogue with a beatboxer, a pianist and a bassist to help the sisters to realize the album's complex array of bells and whistles without using samplers. You'll see some shows this year that are really bad, and you'll see others that are really good. But you'll probably only see one that's somehow, against all odds, both. To be terrible and wonderful at once is a rare feat, but it's all in a night's work for the Casady sisters.
CocoRosie plays Cat's Cradle Wednesday, May 9, with Busdriver and Tez. The show begins at 9:15 p.m., and tickets are $10 in advance and $12 day of show.