PREMIERE: Grace Sings Sludge Keeps Creepin’ On in “Friend to All” Video

Photo Credit: Nic Russo

Recently, Grace Cooper officially became a children’s book author – by accident. For the physical release of her fifth solo album (and first recorded in a studio) as Grace Sings Sludge, Cooper illustrated a 32-page booklet, which, she explains, wasn’t deemed long enough to be registered with the Library of Congress unless classified as a children’s book. It is, perhaps, one of the most cryptically-titled children’s tomes in history: Christ Mocked & The End of a Relationship. Its illustrations are both grotesque and delicate: drippy demons and sinister saints; nude figures twisted in ecstasy, or misery, or both – it’s hard to tell which. Cooper’s lyrics are printed out, too, and they’re also a mishmash of the tender, the surreal, the horrific, and the humorous. “I’m either horror or comedy,” Cooper says. “I’m kind of a goofy person, but when I’m making anything, there’s no question it’s going to be creepy.”

Cooper grew up just outside Oakland in the East Bay Area. Her father is a guitarist, singer, and songwriter, but she says she was “too shy” to perform around the house and didn’t start making music until her twenties, after getting a job at Amoeba Records. There, she met Tim Cohen, who asked her to sing backup in the early days of The Fresh & Onlys, which got her used to performing in front of others; Cohen introduced her to Heidi Alexander, and eventually, the two formed whimsical garage-pop band The Sandwitches with Roxanne Young, playing their first gig in a bookstore. But all the while, Cooper recorded solo songs in secret. “After the Sandwitches, I just kind of went back to what’s a little more natural for me – recording at home by myself,” she says. That changed when The Sandwitches’ label, San Francisco imprint Empty Cellar Records, offered to put out her next record, and suggested she record it with Phil Manley at El Studio. Manley is well-known in the Bay Area for playing in bands like Trans Am, Feral Ohms, and The Fucking Champs, and Cooper says, “Something just felt right when his name was brought up.”

Though she’s more comfortable recording at home, she took studio prep seriously. “When I record myself, [the songs are] just skeletal sketches, they’re kind of a template and I find it as I go,” she says. “But this time I tried to map out some idea of what instruments I heard in my head, and I had the songs arranged in the order that I thought they should be in. We recorded them from start to finish in that order. We recorded pretty quickly, but somehow the record ended up being something that, in the time that’s gone by since recording it, I’m still completely happy with and I don’t have any regrets.”

Cooper has reason to be proud – she played every instrument on Christ Mocked, save for drums handled by Nic Russo, who also played piano on “Horror For People That Don’t Like Horror,” a nonchalant tale about the devastating embarrassment that comes along with first forays into physical intimacy. Though Cooper says she’s in her “comfort zone with buzzy, shitty sounding stuff,” this album brings out the peculiar beauty of her voice in ways previous DIY affairs didn’t quite capture; threaded with sparse guitar, meandering basslines, or dissonant piano, Christ Mocked is a bit reminiscent of early Cat Power, if Chan Marshall had somehow been more awkward (and obsessed with horror movies, religious iconography, and sketches of nude women). It’s set for release July 17th.

Whatever the professional process brought out in the music, it did nothing to temper Cooper’s weirdo aesthetic. Two of her favorite tracks are spoken-word recollections of vivid dreams she had, describing the travails of an undercover woman and and undercover man who are slowly disappearing (“Borderlands”) and “a condemned Disneyland/a perverted Swiss Family dream” (“The Hackers”). The latter ends with the veiled origins of Cooper’s early appreciation for horror films – she says she remembers watching Texas Chain Saw Massacre with her dad, also a horror buff, when she was just six.

That obsession surfaces again in the video for the album’s second single, “Friend To All,” Cooper’s “hokey noir take on disillusionment and disassociation.” She enlisted old friend Wesley Smith to direct and Jeff Williams to assist; though she hadn’t seen them in nearly fifteen years, it was a natural extension of their old delinquent ways, making gross, darkly funny short films as “Bad Habit Productions.”

“We were all very gothed out,” Cooper remembers. “We would skip school and go steal alcohol from Safeway and hang out on Monument Boulevard in Concord but we would always be doing something creative together. We might have been doing drugs and loitering but at least we were making really bizarre little movies.”

For “Friend To All,” the trio filmed in an garishly orange Motel 6 room and an abandoned incinerator building in Sacramento; Cooper looks put together with pin-up curls, red lipstick and vintage monochromatic suit sets, but in the ominous details, things begin to unravel. She smokes a cigarette, sprawled on a hideous bedspread, barely acknowledging the body wrapped in a sheet in the corner. And then suddenly, she’s naked in a bathtub smearing what looks like shit all over her face, dancing and weaving drunkenly in the street, and wearing a rather nightmarish mask as she tiptoes over trash in stilettos.

“Yeah, I don’t know what inspired that,” Cooper says of the mask. “I needed a last minute Halloween costume one year, and I just cut my pantyhose up and kept it in my underwear drawer. I still have it.” It made for a fitting prop – the song itself is about the disguises we put up in interacting with others, a riff on the old saying “A friend to all is a friend to none.”

If the mask represents someone pretending to be something they aren’t, the derelict buildings where the video was filmed are an astute parallel to the deterioration of those false relationships, crumbling into forgotten ruins. But the layers of symbolism may as well have been incidental – Cooper says she routinely puts on YouTube videos of urban explorers searching through abandoned structures to watch as she falls asleep. “I was very charmed by Sacramento and I really hope it keeps that old school sort of dilapidated feeling,” Cooper recalls. “I was happy as a clam being in this place, just trying to not step on needles and diapers, and there was nobody around. It was right next to apartment buildings too, that’s why there was so much garbage spillover. But it didn’t seem like anybody was really squatting there. The light was beautiful.”

Cooper usually works on her own videos, mostly alone in her apartment, like she did with the video for “Falling in love with him again was the most exciting time of my life,” because “It’s very low budget and I have complete creative control,” she says. Still, she manages to evoke something heartfelt and haunting, always remaining within her own eccentric aesthetic.

“I’m an odd duck – it’s just a culmination of who I am, how I grew up,” Cooper says. While she admits that forging her own path can be isolating at times – especially when it comes to booking shows in Oakland – she’s fine with defying comparisons. “I can’t do anything else,” she says. “I’m gonna keep keeping to myself because I’m happier doing it that way. But I want to be there for the weird outsider ladies.”

Who knows… maybe her odd children’s book will find its way to the right type of kids – ones that film darkly funny movies in abandoned spaces, write strange little songs, and go all-in on their most outlandish tendencies.

Photo Credit: Faith Cooper

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ALBUM REVIEW: Fresh & Onlys “House Of Spirits”

Fresh & Onlys

Fresh & Onlys

House Of Spirits, out June 10th on Mexican Summer, is the newest release from San Francisco psych-rock janglers The Fresh & Onlys, is a study in subtle kookiness. Fronting vocalist Tim Cohen, who wrote many of the songs on this album alone on a ranch in the Arizona desert, has a voice that seems inherently gentle and intimate. His ear for wistful pop harmonies–with golden arpeggios to match from guitarist Wymond Miles–often place this group squarely in the sphere of indie endearingness that reaches backwards towards nostalgia, not forwards towards absurdity. That was the very much the case on the group’s last full-length, 2012’s Long Slow Dance, an album brimming with romantic earnestness and stellar pop songs. But House Of Spirits is a little different.

Though the melodies don’t often give way to Cohen’s more experimental songwriting tendencies, they’re a shade spookier than par, and–especially in the first few tracks–dwell distinctly in the province of dreams. Album opener “Home Is Where?” begins innocently enough, with sweetly plodding piano chords and a quiet vocal line whose lyrics are sort of extolling the comforts of being home and knowing where you belong, and then all the sudden the song derails with the line “There is something that is off, for example there’s a bowl full of eyes on the floor.” It’s more than an impeccable instance of dream logic, this track also sets the bar for surreality. Anything is fair game, essentially, on House Of Spirits: there will be twists, and you will not be able to see them coming.

According to Cohen, all of House Of Spirits represents a search for home and the disorientation of not recognizing a place that should be familiar. However, the record’s back half takes place in waking life, as opposed to in a dream, and the kookiness gets a little watered down once the images of bowls full of eyes and stewpots full of hearts succumbs to conscious thought. The album ambles onward into daylight, and loses a lot of its sharpness. The affectionate “Ballerina” would feel more at home on Long Slow Dance, and even so, the track lacks passion. Next, though the repetition of the melody over horns on “Candy” offers a coolly sinister ending, it’s otherwise a one-dimensionally sunny song. The lack of curveballs in the latter tracks is all the more disappointing because we’ve been set up to expect twisting and turning, and we keep waiting for the song’s sinister side to poke its head up from underneath the surface. Only on the last cut, “Madness,” do we return to the disoriented search for familiar territory that kicked off House Of Spirits. Experimental, distorted guitar parts flood a gentle vocal line, reassuring lyrics give way to spooky echoes, and all the music melts into noise, and finally silence. At no point is “Madness” as catchy as “Home Is Where?” or the album’s three frontloaded scorchers– “Who Let The Devil,” “Bells of Paonia,” and “Animal of One” –but it does belong to the same surreal, imaginative dreamscape.

House Of Spirits will be out via Mexican Summer Records on June 10th. The New York Times is streaming the album in full, and you can check out “Who Let The Devil” below via Soundcloud: