Upon first listen, the intimate mewling of the Casady sisters seems playful and beguiling, as if every word were sprinkled with pixie dust. The sisters breathe in childish whispers that evoke Björk’s early ingénue in all its youthful mischief and simple sincerity. Their first album, 2004’s La Maison de Mon Reve, showcased this approach wonderfully, with a velvety collection of unadorned pop creations that combined operatic caterwauling with soft-spoken poetry into intricate folk songs set against arrhythmic percussion. For the follow-up, they purposely set out to work against type, delivering 2005’s Noah’s Ark, an album that boldly strayed into darker territory, while 2007’s The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn revealed an even more unhinged side.
So, where do they go on Grey Oceans?
Rather than offsetting any presumptions about the direction of their music, their latest acts as a collage of these past experiments, but with a particular emphasis on theme. In fact, the title track may offer the most insight into principal songwriter Bianca’s prevailing mood while creating these selections. With sister Sierra’s rich voice singing ghostly moans in the background, the little children referenced in “Grey Oceans” “flutter by with rosaries dangling from their necks/ German Shepherds guide by nightfall little kinder/ Little kinder dressed in starlight.” The scene suggests a Day of the Dead parade, with children marching by in skeletal costumes. It’s a morose theme that in fact recurs in different permutations throughout the album, from the dirge-like march of “Undertaker” to the cemetery dance of “R.I.P. Burn Face,” which asks “In her mourning, in her grief/ Don’t you miss the way she washed her hairy hair?” And consistent with its title’s allusion to the antique machinery for execution, “Gallows” opens with a chilly metaphor for evening fall: “It was just before the moon/ hung her weary heavy head in the gallows”.
However, Grey Oceans’ thematic consistency doesn’t allow much in the way of respite from its despondence, so the album can be a bit one-dimensional. There is the summery piano on “Lemonade” and the seeming whimsy of “Fairy Paradise,” but even with these lighter moments, the somber feel is inescapable. Added to that, the production often leaves the sisters’ voices afloat in the mix, creating an ethereal effect that reinforces the notion of otherworldly voices pining for their former lives, filled with scenes of relatives looking at photos of long-lost loved ones and talking about what could have been. Ah, what could have been. For all its focus on death, regret, and grieving, it’s almost as if the album was made for the ghosts it alludes to, rather than the living who might spend time listening to it on this side.