In Brief: A fun exercise in doing whatever you want as a band, unaccountable to any record label. Cocoon will fly under most radars, but for the curious, it’s worth tracking down.
Well, color me surprised. After the feisty sister-fronted band Meg & Dia was one and done with their shot at major label success, only for lead singer Dia Frampton to turn up as a contestant on the American Idol rival show The Voice, I had just assumed that the band had packed it in. It had been a relatively short run, but a fun one nonetheless – the punchy melodies and independent spirit of their full-band debut, Something Real, leading to the exposure that landed them a deal with Warner Bros., which begat Here, Here and Here, a flawed but incredibly fun rock record with wry observations and brash attitude spilling over the brim. I honestly never figured out why that one didn’t catch on. It had all of the gloss of a popular mainstream record, while still hanging onto the top-notch energy that the band’s better rockers displayed back in their indie days. Maybe it wasn’t trashy enough? The sisters were certainly frank at times on that record, and at others too verbose for the meaning of their motor-mouthed words to fully sink in. But in a day and age where lyrics are largely ignored in favor of looks and hooks, I actually thought that record stood a chance of bringing the gap between the mindless and mindful segments of the rock music audience. Maybe poor marketing was to blame? Who knows. Either way, when Dia started to get some recognition all on her own due to one of those dreaded singing shows that always strike me as being more about who can stretch a syllable into twenty notes than any artistic considerations, I assumed the worst – that she was cashing in on the lowest common denominator appeal of her voice and that the rest of the band would just have to go do their own thing.
So naturally, I felt dumb when it was pointed out to me that the band had actually been hard at work, crafting and self-releasing an entire new album before any of that business with The Voice even got started. Cocoon is one of those rare albums that I should have been looking forward to, but that completely slipped in under my radar. I thought I had my ear to the ground, but instead I had my head in the sand. But I was happy to be proven wrong, and even happier to find out that Cocoon contains some of the sisters’ best songwriting yet. As much as I loved cranking up the car stereo with Here, Here & Here, I knew that it ran the risk of emphasizing style over substance, and now it seems that the reverse is true, because right from the get-go, I can tell that this isn’t a record intended for mass consumption. In many places it’s quiet, stripped-down, unassuming, and it almost intentionally thwarts the expectations of those who might tune in to hear radio-friendly pop music with teeth. That’s not to say it’s one of those genre-busting “high art” records that’s gonna get critically acclaimed and commercially ignored – they haven’t rewritten the book on rock & roll or anything. But it seems like each song was crafted to simply be whatever it became organically, free from the need to conform to the length of a potential single, and apparently even from concerns about how the album would flow from track to track. It’s disjointed, and there are a few swings and misses to be found among its eleven tracks, but also several powerful moments that remind me these ladies (and the three men backing them up) aren’t content to sit still and churn out the same record over and over.
Listening to Cocoon, I never once get the feeling that I’m being sold anything. The slight raspy edge on these ladies’ otherwise sweet voices reminds me that while they can turn out some lovely harmonies, they’re not particularly interested in pop princess-dom (a notion which would seem to be confirmed by some of Dia’s unusual song choices on The Voice). A few songs bring back the acoustic flair of the band’s early days as a duo, while others expand in surprisingly new and dramatic directions by way of lush instrumentation. Even the songs with big obvious hooks and brash rhythms don’t feel forced or overproduced. You’ll find your fair share of love songs and breakup songs, as you will on all of their albums, thought the balance seems to tip a little more towards hope this time, and there’s room for some whimsical storytelling in the margins. The days might be gone when you could easily spot the literary sources behind a few of the songs, but the songs still spill over with little details that hint at author-ly aspirations from time to time. Cocoon is a grab bag of interesting ideas, a homemade record that paradoxically seems that much more adorable because of its flawed, patchwork nature. I’m not one who can be counted on to consistently and blindly promote a DIY aesthetic and declare anything done in a big fancy studio to be overproduced, but sometimes a band’s gotta do what feels right, and everything I’m hearing here tells me that’s exactly what Meg & Dia did.
1. Love Is
No, this isn’t a song about those cheesy comic strip panels with the naked cartoon characters making cute gestures towards each other. But it is a surprisingly soft meditation on love that breaks from Meg & Dia tradition by not opening the album with a huge, catchy, slamming hook. To be honest, I was certain I’d downloaded a demo when I first heard the opening of this one, with its quiet count-off and dry acoustic strumming sounding like it was just waiting for a producer to come along and fill it in. As it turns out, the song does a fine job of filling itself in slowly, sprinkling in dobro, light percussion and even an organ as each verse reminds us of the committed, long-suffering nature of love. It’s such a broad topic that it would seem almost inadvisable for songwriters as witty and cynical as Meg & Dia to tackle it, but their description is just unique enough to work, and even surprisingly compelling at times: “Love is an aeroplane, it can travel across the world/And lift you high above, and still it’ll never change/Love is a gentle word, even when your pride is hurt/Won’t turn you away, Won’t bring up yesterday.” You’ll probably still be questioning the logic of opening a rock record with such a down-tempo tune until midway through, when suddenly a larger-than-life saloon piano and exuberant stomps and handclaps show up, as if the two girls had been playing all by their lonesome on stage and suddenly the curtain lifted to show a cavalcade of musicians behind it. It gives the song just the lift it needs before settling back into its sweet refrain of “Love is, love is, love is everything.”
Perhaps less advisable so early in the record is this lyrically imaginative but musically sluggish tune in which Dia imagines herself and her sister as criminals on the run, making a break for the Mexican border and doing their best to evade the authorities. While it’s an outlaw song, it’s still got an inherent sweetness to it, as one swears she’ll do what it takes to protect the other, even if it means giving herself up and pretending she doesn’t know her partner. This could be such a fun, free-wheeling song, and it’s a shame that the lead guitar melody and overall tempo of the song feel so lackadaisical. I still have to give them points for a creative story, and maybe this one will grow on me more with time – I felt similarly about the Barenaked Ladies‘ song “Bank Job” at first, and I’ve grown to appreciate that one a lot (though it is arguably more fun due to how quickly the protagonist of that song sells his buddies up the river).
3. Unsinkable Ships
Want an upbeat song with a jangly riff that will easily get stuck in your head, and larger-than-life handclaps and backing vocals? This one might give you a good fix. I’m not at all suggesting that all there is to Meg & Dia is catchy hooks, but they certainly sound like they had fun recording this one, and that translates well to the listener’s enjoyment, I think. Against the backdrop of acoustic guitar and mandolin, lead guitarist Carlo Gimenez gets in some brief but tasty bits of soloing and bassist Jonathan Snyder is quite noticeable in the mix, possibly because it’s relatively light on drums. The gang vocals that chime in at the refrain of “I gave up on giving up on me” are startling at first, almost making you think someone’s yelling to be heard over your headphones, and it takes a second to realize they’re on the recording, a little raw but all the more fun for it. The only problem is that the song runs on two chords for about two minutes, sounding a lot like a never-ending verse in search of a chorus, and then it ends abruptly with the whole gang giggling. Good for them that no label suits were pushing them to make this fit standard song structure, I guess, but I was just starting to get into it and now it’s over!
This being a record that unfolds gently and cautiously, it should be no surprise that we’re back in ballad mode here. This one’s a good balance between acoustic and electric, with its lead riff ringing out but its melody taking a bit of time to fully sink in. Dia looks unflinchingly at a love/hate relationship here – the kind she knows is killing her but that she can’t seem to resist going back to despite the advice of her peers. It’s got the same forlorn feeling and incisive lyrics as some of the slower cuts from Something Real, but with the melodic grace of Here, Here and Here‘s “Kiss You Goodnight”, so for me it’s the best of both worlds, because I feel like the lyrics are a little better thought through. Check this situation out: “We made up on the couch on the floor/But you told me I needed to lose/A few pounds on the body I love.” I feel her pain, and yet at the same time I want to punch the guy. Meg harmonizes beautifully here, especially during the breathtaking bridge. This one will probably be overlooked by those in search of punchy pop songs, but for me it’s one of the album’s strongest cuts.
5. Mary Ann
The slow, easygoing 6/8 rhythm of this song combined with the fiery guitar riffing gives it a slightly bluesy, old-school rock & roll sort of feel. It’s appropriate enough for a passive/aggressive song that finds two women eyeing each other suspiciously and staking out their turf, possibly without ever uttering an unkind word out loud. Mary Ann is quite clearly the “other woman” in this scenario, sidling up to Dia’s man and making it all too obvious that she’s on the prowl, and Dia’s sort of exasperated by the shamelessness of it all. Her man doesn’t seem dumb enough to fall for it, since he calls Mary Ann out on her tactics and tells her to back off – or at least that’s how Dia imagines it going down. I enjoy this track, though it does seem a bit bare-bones, like it’s screaming for the band to really open up and run with it, show off their chops and all that. I can see that happening in a live setting, I guess.
6. Better Off
Dia’s attempting a bit of a torch song with this one, with a slow, swaying rhythm, icy cool keyboards, and an electric guitar that tries to play it smooth like it’s a John Mayer ballad or something. It’s all a perfect showcase for Dia’s voice, which soars with grace despite her biting commentary about how she could set some loser straight but she’s better off not even bothering with the guy. The only problem? There’s this grating lo-fi percussion knocking about in the background, which keeps the beat of the song just fine, but which feels excessive and kind of upsets the mood that the band seems to be going for. Light jazz drumming, or perhaps no drums at all, would have served the song better in my opinion. And I’m usually the guy who prefers for songs to have a good, solid beat. It just depends on the context, I suppose.
7. Said and Done
Though this is Meg & Dia’s shortest song at a minute and three-quarters, it actually feels more complete than “Unsinkable Ships”. Pretty strange that I would say that, considering it consists of little more than the two ladies’ voices, an acoustic guitar, and an accordion on the second and final chorus. There’s something so cute and earnest about it that I can’t help but fall in love with it – it basically plays like their version of “When I’m 64”, as Dia asks her man if love can last long past the honeymoon phase: “When we’re comfortable and we’re all grown up/When it’s all said and done, will you still love me?/When those younger girls are more beautiful/And I’m old, but I’m still tryin’, will you still love me?” There’s a noticeable trade-off when Meg chimes in at the chorus, which includes one of my favorite lines: “Will we still make love without stopping to breathe?” I was initially surprised at how short and uncomplicated this one was, but it feels like the song said what it needed to say and it wraps itself up neatly without fussing over the details.
8. Summer Clothes
The immediacy with which Dia’s voice chimes in on this one reminds me of the urgent, poppy nature of Here, Here & Here. If anything on Cocoon could even remotely fit into that album, I guess it might be this song. But still, there’s that de-emphasis on modern pop gloss, in favor of just letting the guys in the band play their instruments unvarnished. That’s evident in the slightly gritty but highly melodic lead guitar riff – Carlo is just dancing all over this one and it has a happy-go-lucky vibe that reminds me of a fun Sheryl Crow song like “Every Day Is a Winding Road”. (Whoa, I think that’s the first time I’ve used “fun” and “Sheryl Crow” in the same sentence.) The lyrics, which Dia belts out with her fair share of gusto and even a little scatting/improvising along the way, remain on the melancholy side of things, using clothes that an old boyfriend grew out of as a metaphor for him growing older, not wanting to be tied down to the same old people and places he knew in his youth, but instead wanting to go see the world. This marked the end of a relationship, which of course is a sad moment, but it’s also a moment of maturity, as the song seems to strive for the old “If you love someone, set them free” perspective.
The album’s longest song is also its most stunning – the rare ballad that captivated ne right away rather than taking its time to sink in. If you find the two repeating piano chords and the slow 3/4 time signature to be dull or depressing, then you’re obviously going to disagree with me, but for me they’re the perfect vehicle for the sad tension that persists throughout the song. There’s a real sense of loss in this one, almost as if the time spent in a relationship was like selling one’s soul and not being able to get it back. It’s heartbreaking when both ladies chime in on the chorus, simply repeating “Please, please, please, please, please”. It’s how the vocal lines dance around an otherwise repetitive melody that really makes the song soar. And just when you think that’s all there is to it as the song collapses into warped noise after a few minutes, they change things up completely by breaking into an upbeat, fiery rocker, with pounding drums, shards of electric guitar ringing out, and a mandolin sounding more triumphant than that instrument should ever have the right to. It comes out of nowhere and it sounds like two completely different songs stitched together, but it’s a moment of unexpected intensity that puts an exclamation point on an already stellar tune.
10. I Need You in It
We’re back to acoustic simplicity here (well, almost), for another one of those cute little interludes that lets a little bit of hope shine in despite all of the break-up pathos that pervades the album. The rhythm is once again bouncy, the girls are locked into perfect sync during the chorus, and there’s a bit of soloing on the acoustic guitar (and later the electric) that makes me fondly recall “Cardigan Weather”, a surprisingly lovely breath of fresh air from Something Real‘s back half. The lyrics are pretty simple – Dia sent a guy packing and now she regrets it and she’s telling him she’s seen the error of her ways. You can just picture her with sad puppy dog eyes as you listen to this one. Shoot, this song would make me forgive her if it were written for me.
11. Teddy Loves Her
The mid-tempo pace and strong electric guitar lead here are reminiscent of “Mary Ann”, so once again this is a song that feels like it can take a few tries before it really takes hold. Melodically, it feels a bit flat at times, especially in its lackluster chorus. The interplay between Meg’s rhythm guitar and Carlo’s lead almost make up for it, though. They’re trying to end the album on a hopeful note her as they urge a guy to go get back the girl he hurt, and once again I’m getting that sense of setting someone free despite still being in love with him, as if a guy’s current girlfriend can see he’s still not over an old flame and she tells him “No harm, no foul, just go do what makes you happy already!” This song’s mostly notable for the generous guitar solo that closes it, which to my ears makes it considerably more interesting than “Setting Up Sunday” or “Here, Here and Here”, both of which I felt were lackluster closers on otherwise strong albums.
Meg & Dia are currently at a crossroads where they could branch out in several different directions. This record, while all over the place, seems to demonstrate a restlessness, a desire to not be easily classified as a girly folk band or a rock band or that band who happens to have the lead singer who placed second on some reality show. I’m confident that if Dia can keep the rest of her crew in tow as her newfound recognition gives the band a second shot at the limelight, they’ll all show that they can pull their fair share of the weight, just as they did here. Great things could still be around the corner for Meg & Dia, so long as they don’t cave in to the suits who are only interested in marketing a pretty voice.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Love Is $1.50
Unsinkable Ships $1.50
Mary Ann $.50
Better Off $.50
Said and Done $1.50
Summer Clothes $1.50
I Need You in It $1
Teddy Loves Her $1
Dia Frampton: Lead vocals, keyboards
Meg Frampton: Rhythm guitar, backing vocals
Carlo Gimenez: Lead guitar
Nicholas Price: Drums
Jonathan Snyder: Bass
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Originally published on Epinions.com.