Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cocteau Twins

Metamorphosing from one of the pioneering post-punk, Goth-rock bands on the infamous 4AD label to arguably the most accomplished dream-pop band ever, Cocteau Twins remain relevant even some six years after they went their separate ways. Indeed, Cocteau Twins' impact on eighties British indie-rock puts them squarely in the company of other luminaries like The Cure, New Order and The Smiths. The Cocteaus practically invented and radicalised the dream-pop genre, where gossamer, breathy vocals drift and glide on top of an ambient bedrock of processed and echoed guitar and synthesizer sounds, creating a netherworld soundscape that was both ecstatic and frightening at the same time. The Cocteaus' sound would influence hundreds of latter-day dream-pop bands like My Bloody Valentine, Cranes and Lush. One could say that the Cocteaus even influenced Enya and other Celtic-pop acts, who relied on the same sort of blissed-out acoustics that the Cocteaus pioneered.

The main ingredient in the Cocteaus' unique, dreamlike sound was the dramatic, otherworldly, ethereal-beyond-description voice of Elizabeth Fraser. Fraser had a highly distinctive vocal style that could be as caressing as a lover's whisper one moment, and as goosebump-inducing as an avenging angel the next. Fraser also sung in an indecipherable fashion, nonchalantly pilfering words from English, Latin, Gaelic and other arcane languages, and jumbling them up in a highly textural and ultimately emotional collision of sounds. This made for an unparalleled aural mix that had absolutely no musical precedents.

The industrial dive of Grangemouth, Scotland was the unlikely birthplace of Cocteau Twins. It was in 1979 that guitarist Robin Guthrie and bassist Will Heggie first met. Taking their name from an obscure Simple Minds B-side, the duo was later augmented by Elizabeth Fraser, whom Guthrie met outside a local club. Rehearsals and hometown performances followed in kind, and it was three years later after the Cocteaus moved down to the bright lights of London that they managed to clinch their first record deal with Ivo Watts-Russell's legendary 4AD label, which had given so many great post-punk bands their first real start.

June 1982 saw the release of Cocteau Twins' debut album, "Garlands". "Garlands" was a harsh, discordant Goth-rock production that gave little indication of the Cocteaus' later brand of dream-pop. On "Garlands", Guthrie's heavily processed guitar (complete with inordinate amounts of feedback and flanging) practically spat and snarled, providing whatever melodic counterpoint there was to Heggie's dark, growling bass lines, which was reminiscent of Peter Hook's work with Joy Division. However, Fraser had begun to develop her incipient ephemeral, airy vocal style even on "Garlands", ranging from a commanding and confident dexterity on "Blind Dumb Deaf" to a brittle fragility on "Perhaps Some Other Aeon". But at the end of the day, "Garlands" sounded replete with requisite doom and gloom, essential and archetypal components of the Goth-rock sound of the early eighties. Will Heggie left the band shortly after the release of "Garlands".

The next Cocteau Twins releases were the "Lullabies" and "Peppermint Pig" EPs, basically slight refinements of the Goth-rock clamour found on "Garlands", but it was the second full-length Cocteau Twins album that signalled the birth pangs of their ethereal dream-pop sound. Perhaps it was Heggie's departure that precipitated the change, but whatever the case, Cocteau Twins were well on their way to veritable greatness. "Head Over Heels" came out in 1983, and it was so markedly different that a music journalist described it as an "effervescent whirligig of abstract grandeur". Guthrie's guitar sounded more resonant this time round, and Fraser's vocals became more lush and palatial.

"Head Over Heels" still had slight traces of the Goth-rock values of "Garlands", but it was distinctive enough to enable it to stand on its own. Standouts include the echo-laden, uneasy "When Mama Was Moth", the gliding, multi-segmented "Five Ten Fiftyfold" and the new wave-influenced "In Our Angelhood", with its rushed synthesizer runs. But the spotlight should be thrown on "Musette and Drums", the album finale, which brought together massive-sounding snare drums and Guthrie's screeching guitars in a gigantic collision, overlaid with Fraser's dominant vocals.

Simon Raymonde took over the departed Heggie's role as bassist, just in time for 1984's "Treasure" album. "Treasure" was the Cocteaus' "prettiest" album to date, by dint of its surprisingly accessible melodies and complete abandonment of hitherto Goth-rock elements. It was also unique in the fact that all of the song titles consisted of single-word names, e.g. "Ivo", "Otterley" and "Persephone". A dreamy atmosphere prevailed throughout "Treasure", with standouts including the authentic-sounding medieval affectations of "Beatrix", complete with plangent harpsichord pluckings, plus the airy and jazzy structure of "Pandora", underlaid with Fraser's trademark abstract scatting. "Treasure" even managed to break into the British Top 30, reaching a manageable number 28.

The Cocteaus decided to radically alter their sound for their next album. Out went the echoed feedback guitar riffs and processed rhythms; the only thing held over were Fraser's spectral vocals. In came starkly simple instrumentation, with bare acoustic guitars and elemental drones dominating the mix. It was the perfect musical blend for an album whose subject matter was the most isolated continent on Earth.

"Victorialand" stood as a concept album of sorts, and the new minimalist-yet-meticulous approach was highly apt for a musical transcription of the freezing winds and the icy wastelands of Antarctica. The songs on "Victorialand" were atmospheric, glacial and majestic, but never lapsing into ennui or repetition. It opened with the frigid, sweeping soundscape of "Lazy Calm", where the placid thin-ice surface of Fraser's ethereal voice was occasionally broken by slightly flanged but still gentle guitar strums and surprisingly, a processed saxophone. "Fluffy Tufts" had intertwining layers of counterpoint strings, while a lone, plangent acoustic guitar ringed throughout the skeletal "Throughout the Dark Months of April and May". It ended aptly with the vaporous "The Thinner the Air", where Fraser's voice seemed to drift aimlessly in the frozen air like a lost, pulsating wraith.

Cocteau Twins took a much-needed two-year break after the release of "Victorialand", while quietly working on their fifth studio effort. "Blue Bell Knoll" was a departure of sorts in the Cocteaus' sound; simpler musical structures were subsumed by a more complex admixture of various sounds and effects. This would be refined and augmented on further albums, but it was on "Blue Bell Knoll" that Cocteau Twins began experimenting with stacking layers of melodies on top of complex beds of rhythms and effects. Indeed, it was on this album that an authentic Cocteau Twins brand of dream-pop really started manifesting itself, leading one critic to describe it as thus: "When you die, and then open your eyes, if there isn’t music something like this playing in the distance, you’re probably on your way to the wrong place".

A swiftly ascending four-note chord played on synth harpsichord began the album and the title track, where Fraser did a sultry, operatic vocal over the intricate instrumentation. "Carolyn's Fingers" was anchored by a stately but insistent drumbeat and busy synth runs, above which Fraser's voice did her usual ethereal ad-libs (an instrumental version was used for one of Malaysia Airlines' glossy TV ads). "The Itchy Glowbo Blow" was another one of those quirky Cocteau Twins song titles, but its delicate melody saved it from outright pretentiousness.

The Cocteaus took a break of a year after the release of "Blue Bell Knoll", setting up their own studio, September Sound, and locking themselves in it to work on the follow-up. A single, "Iceblink Luck", preceded the album proper, which actually made it into the British Top 20. "Iceblink Luck" was a pure, melodious blast, in which Fraser scatted in a higher-than-usual register amidst manifold guitar-and-keyboards overdubs. It boded well for its parent album, which many longtime fans have cited as the best in the band's oeuvre.

"Heaven or Las Vegas" was, simply put, a masterpiece from start to finish. "Cherry Coloured Funk" was filled with Guthrie's chiming guitar work, with a commanding bass counterpoint. The title track was a colourful detonation of various synth effects and a joyous vocal from Fraser, while the winding guitar lines and steady synth undercarriage of "Road, River and Rail" suggested a lengthy journey by said transportation methods. "Heaven or Las Vegas" ended with one of the best songs in Cocteau Twins' repertoire, the eccentrically titled "Frou Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires". Beginning with a piano theme played in nineteenth-century Romantic style, the song slowly progressed to a persistent guitar-and-synth peal, overlaid with feedback effects and Fraser's ghostly contralto.

Following the release of "Heaven or Las Vegas", Cocteau Twins decided to move on to bigger things - they decided to switch record-label homes. Moving from their longtime 4AD home to the major-label Capitol did nothing to diminish their inherent sound; the standard of their dream-pop was maintained and sometimes even enhanced on their albums for their new label.

The initial fruits of labour of this new association with Capitol was the "Four Calendar Cafe" album. The overall tone of "Four Calendar Cafe" was noticeably more relaxed than previous albums; the synth fills and programmed beats were more subdued and Fraser's vocals became more hushed and placid. The opening "Know Who You Are at Every Age" was a processional, almost-sombre number with a chorus that was actually discernible for once: "Cry, cry, cry till you know why, I lost myself, identify".

Another highlight was "Evangeline", another melancholy, contemplative gem anchored by a slightly distorted guitar-synthesizer line. "Bluebeard" was marked by a jaunty beat and a striking country-guitar twang from Guthrie, while "My Truth" resonated with a soothing, laid-back ambience. The only upbeat tune on the album was the vibrant, evanescent "Summerhead", which somehow turned melancholy at the end, as if to mark the close of the titular season. "Four Calendar Cafe" reached a respectable number 13 on the charts.

No one knew it at the time, but the next Cocteau Twins studio effort was sadly to be their last album. The band came together in 1995 to record the follow-up to "Four Calendar Cafe", and their second album for Capitol, but internal tensions, particularly Fraser and Guthrie's ongoing divorce made the sessions angst-filled and just a tad difficult. Anyhow, the trio got their act together for one last hurrah, and released "Milk and Kisses" in early 1996.

"Violaine" kicked off the album on a promising note, with shimmering synth lines and a fetching vocal from Fraser. Elsewhere, there were the charming "Half Gifts", tinged with subtle string orchestrations and a stately piano melody, and the first single from the album, the sublime "Tishbite", featuring Guthrie's sparkling guitar arpeggios.

The indisputable highlight of "Milk and Kisses" was contained in the spiritual, astral essence of "Serpentskirt", arguably their greatest post-4AD song, which sounded rapturous and terrifying simultaneously, and a superb showcase for Fraser's vaporous, angelic vocals. "Serpentskirt" sounded like the theme song for that indescribable place between heaven and hell, and only Cocteau Twins could pull it off with such aplomb and dexterity.

"Milk and Kisses" was closed by the amazing, jaw-dropping "Seekers Who are Lovers", whose chorus layered two facets of Fraser's voice simultaneously; a gliding, operatic soprano and a throatier, earthier alto. This made for an extremely eerie and chilling musical effect, an automatic goosebump-raiser and one hell of an album closer.

"Milk and Kisses" did moderately well on the charts, but the band was on its way to breaking up. Fraser embarked on a moderately successful session-vocalist career, providing voices on records by everyone from Massive Attack to Craig Armstrong, while Guthrie and Raymonde made do with some arty ambient projects.

A coda to the Cocteau Twins story came in 1999, in the form of a double-disc set of BBC sessions, recorded at various points of their career. Although the versions of the songs here were not as polished and rounded as their studio counterparts, it was nonetheless a useful document of their radio-broadcast work.


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