Cocteau Twins albums
The Cocteau Twins have one of the most interesting sounds out there: definitely 1980’s music and production (courtesy of the guitarist/songwriter Robin Guthrie), but this angelic woman named Elizabeth Fraser singing duets with herself (in a non-existent language she made up) over this spaced out, guitar and synth workouts. I like to think of their great four album streak (Head Over Heels through Blue Bell Knoll) as a kind of human journey: the birth, the launch into space, the orbit and floating, and then the landing back on earth. It reflects the tones and sounds of the albums, because even though this band always kind of sounds the same, each of their albums definitely had a distinct sound. Oddly, many of the band’s greatest songs are not even on albums, but collected on EP’s scattered throughout their existence (these include “Pearly Dew Drops”, “Aikea-Guniea”, “Peppermint Pig”, “Hitherto”) The band does get into a more radio-pop influenced period that I don’t really care for, but it is a tonal shift that helped inspired me to be a music critic. The Cocteau Twins are the kind of great, influential band that pushes music forwards and their cadre of followers are staggering: My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain, Sigur Ros, Stereolab, The Sundays, and the entirety of European influenced psychedelic pop of the 1990’s forward would not have been the same without them. For all my attempts, the Cocteau Twins are truly, a band you cannot describe with words.
Robin Guthrie – Guitar, programming electronics
Elizabeth Fraser – Vocals
Simon Raymonde – Bass; Keyboards (1983 – current)
Will Heggie – Bass (1981 – 1983)
“Drum Machine” – drums
Best Album – Blue Bell Knoll
Biggest Influences – Robert Wyatt, Tim Buckley, Roxy Music, Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, Joy Division, Siouxsie Sioux
1982 – (3.5 / 5) – Garlands
1983 – (4.5 / 5) – Head Over Heels
1984 – (4 / 5) – Treasure
1986 – (4 / 5) – Victorialand
1988 – (5 / 5) – Blue Bell Knoll
1990 – (3.5 / 5) – Heaven or Las Vegas
1991 – (2 / 5) – Four Calendar Cafe
1996 – (3 / 5) – Milk and Kisses
Garlands – (3.5 / 5)
Garlands is a good debut album, especially for only a duo of Guthrie and Fraser. It helped establish the Cocteau Twins as something different in the 1980’s, and opposition to most mainstream crap. The sound here is very dark, and one gets the impression that the Cocteau Twins are out to change the standard of rock music. They sound a little derivative here, the sparse comparison would be like Brian Ferry fronting Public Image Limited, with Brian Eno doing something odd on keyboards. The standard for the band using a drum machine in the 80’s was also set here, so those looking for a ‘great drummer’ might look elsewhere. But for those looking for just great songs, there are a couple! “Hollow Men” has some crazy guitar noises mixed with an interesting melody and “Wax and Wane” is the first Cocteau Twins classic song, with Fraser doing her made-up-language thing (“wheening and sneezing”) and a bass part sounding demonic. “Shallow Then Halo” establishes a solid mood, but it is a little overlong for what it is, while “Blood Bitch” and “Garlands” have their moments of excellence. The only bad songs come at the end of each ‘side’, “Grail Overfloweth” and “Blind Dumb Deaf” are dead ends for the band’s sound that they would never really pursue again. Overall, the band defiantly has their own ‘genre’ here, and that alone is quite exceptional. Many bands never make an album as good as Garlands, much less a debut with such promise.
Greatest Songs – Wax and Wane, Hollow Men, Garlands
Head Over Heels – (4.5 / 5)
THE BIRTH. Their second album, and it sounds like a creature being born out of a void and crawling its way to existence. Psychedelic, middle eastern, guitar jangle, demented, pop music would only begin to sum it up. They are joined on this album by a new bass player Simon Raymonde that further expands their sonic template. The song titles make about as much sense as the lyrics, but that is what makes this band unique as that is their point. My personal favorite “Glass Candle Grenades” (lyric sample “as pure as we are there is only headshot between us”) and “Five Ten Fifty Fold” are scary little slow rock songs with epic sounds that could shake cathedrals; “In Our Anglehood” is a 1980’s post-punk style rev-up that recalls contemporaries like Echo and the Bunnymen or The Cure but with a more dense production; “Multifoiled” is a soul ballad that sounds like a child learning to sing-speak nursery rhyme; “When Mama was Moth” and “Mussette and Drums” great album openers and a great closers.
In all of the great tracks, it is easy to forget that at its core this music does create its own universe though guitarist Robin Guthrie’s lo-fi production. Influenced by some great psychedelic music, Guthrie coins the background bliss that Elizabeth Fraser sings over and it is a wonder to behold. Every song is very different from the previous one, but one thing they all have in common: they are intriguing. “In the Gold Dust Rush” for example, sounds exactly what it must have been like to explore a barren 1850’s California in the hopes of finding buried treasure. This is a very consistent record music wise, one of the bands best, and also one of their most underrated. Slight flaws for me would be that “Sugar Hiccup” doesn’t quite grab me like some of their other pop singles do, and once the group leaves behind the somewhat stale sounds of “Tinder Box” and “My Love Paramour” it can perfect its dense sound. It is definitely their most demented and features some frenzied guitar playing. For 1983, this is insanely original music, so lets get it more exposure.
Greatest Songs – Glass Candle Grenades, Five Ten Fifty Fold, Mussette and Drums, Multifoiled
Treasure – (4 / 5)
THE LAUNCH. This is the most popular of the Cocteau Twins albums, probably because it shows off a new kind of ‘melodic pop’ music. Many call this the first “dream-pop” album, and it makes sense as a genre tag as each song creates a sort of mystical and timeless air about it. All of the song titles are names of famous goddess like women, adding to that medieval aura. At the core of any great work of art the question should remain fundamentally the same though- is this great music? Are the songs moving? Is the album consistent? The good news is most of these songs are great, like the first four especially: “Lorelei” especially is one of a kind music, the best song the band ever made, and it’s nonsensical lyrics work splendidly with the exotic medley; opener “Ivo” is equally as labyrinth and dense while maintain a kind of gateway into the band’s sound; “Beatrix” is more subdued and hushed, proving the band does not need percussion to keep their tunes alive; “Persephone” is a vocal workout for Fraser that is impossible for most singers to accomplish. This is exploratory music, moving into avant-garde techniques that sound like a rocket launching into space.
Though the album never again reaches the high point of it’s opening four songs, the rhyming and vocally perfect “Aloysius” and the crescendo album closer “Donimo” are great tunes in their own right. There are a couple of tunes that that really go nowhere, like “Pandora” and “Amelia”, songs that drift with no good melody to speak of (for a counterpoint, look at a song like Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia” from 1976’s Hejira album, which is a record that heavily influences this one). “Otterley” is simply some whispers over drone-type music, which is a musical dead end if the band is not going to add anything else to it (bordering close to bad ‘new age’ music). Lastly it must be said that the drum machine on this album is one of the worst sounds I have ever heard in my life and cannot be ignored. Still, despite these small flaws most of Treasure is highly influential on modern music and splendid to listen to, though Cocteau Twins have made other more consistent albums.
Greatest Songs – Lorelei, Persephone, Aloysius, Ivo
Victorialand – (4 / 5)
THE ORBIT IN SPACE. I don’t know if they meant this, but this album is way more ‘drifty’ and ‘floaty’ than anything they have done in the past. Ever evolving! That is a good thing. This album actually starts out with two minutes of silence, and I really think they were going for a ‘space rock’ kind of sound. Calm space rock though, like an astronaut sitting in a spacesuit staring at earth; odd how music can often reflect emotions. With almost no percussion to speak of on some songs, the band whips out snippets of greatness like “Throughout the Dark Months of April and May”, the profound space hymnal “Oomingmak”, and typical Cocteau Twins beauty “Fluffy Tufts”.
Of course with an album like this, it can often feel TOO spacey, like “Feet Like Fins” and “How to Bring a Blush to the Snow” accomplish (or better yet, fail to accomplish). I do think this is a good album though, because the band shows that great music can have a certain style but also continually evolve, and every great band does this is some way. It shows that Robin Guthrie is an excellent songwriter that can craft albums where a decent song is not judged on necessarily being boring, just being too much of a good thing. “Whales Tales” and opener “Lazy Calm” are examples of this, as they serve less as ‘songs’ then as ‘mood setters’. The album feels weightless and easy, though much craft and thought went into its spectral compositions and if you are in the right mood for it it is an excellent record to drift away too. “The Thinner the Air” closes Victorialand off into silence, preparing re-entry.
Greatest Songs – Oomingmak, Lazy Calm, The Thinner Air, throughout the dark months of april and may
Blue Bell Knoll – (5 / 5)
LANDING BACK ON EARTH. “For Phoebe Still a Baby” says ‘welcome home from your soul seeking journey’ like nothing else. The first three songs form an impressive trilogy of power, each one building on the last. This is my favorite Twins album, because I think it most consistently executes their theory of ethereal rock music. It recalls Head over Heels with its questions about the meaning of existence, perfected on the track “Itchy Glowbo Blow”. Song titles like that show the band at its most creative, don’t they? They match the nonsensical lyrics, which are again, complete bliss upon listening. Other highlights in melodies include “Cico Buff” with its soothing chorus and “Spooning Good Singing Gum” with its completely different verse and chorus. The closer “Ella Megablast Burls Forever” is a suitable album closer; to me, it plays like end credits to the great four album streak the band produced so far and has an Oriental influence.
This album also has the best sounding percussion of any Cocteau Twins album, and few people ever points that out. On Head over Heels and especially Treasure, the drums were so primitive they almost distracted, but here they fit perfectly and it is nice (“Blue Bell Knoll”, “Kissed Out Red Floatboat”). “Carolyn’s Fingers” may be their best single song as it nails everything perfect about the bands pop sound; it is also Fraser’s most acrobatic vocal workout (keep in mind readers, there ain’t no auto tune around this time period, she is just that good of a singer. “For Phoebe Still a Baby” is the perfect song to sing to a newborn child. The band lands back on Earth here, and produces its best set of songs, and other that flow and match. The band in the past had always had supreme highpoints but also a few songs that went nowhere, but here it is all sweet and good. Blue Bell Knoll is the perfect Cocteau Twins album, and I’d recommend listening to it first. This way you’ll know the band has come a long way since its beginning and you’ll be interested in its past. The album works as an example of pop music with a unique laid-back twist, such as Can’s Future Days or Brian Eno’s Before and After Science. In the year of 1988, one of the greatest years for rock music albums, it stands tall.
Greatest Songs – Carolyn’s Fingers, Spooning Good Singing Gum, Blue Bell Knoll, Cico Buff
Heaven or Las Vegas – (3.5 / 5)
Disclaimer: my review of this album may make some people upset, but that is not my intention. While there is no journey here, this is the band’s most raw and earthy record. You can actually understand what Fraser says; “what are they thinking with that” is what we all said. The question must be asked: Does the style a band creates define who they are, and can they transcend it? That is the eternal question that all bands face, and should they go on (to sell-out make money) or quit when their best work is done. What I am trying to articulate is I do not dislike this album because it is more ‘normal’ than their others, but just because it is less consistent. They open up with a winner, the radio read single “Cherry Colored Funk”, which completely normalizes their sound for neophytes. “Pitch the Baby” isn’t horrible, but it sounds “fake”, something the band has steadfastly avoided to this point in their career. “Iceblink Luck” through “Fotzepolitic” is pop music, programmed into dance beats, for the masses. Is that what we have turned into here??? Hence, selling out may not be getting ‘accessible’ in music form, but in idea form. The melodies and ideas are less complicated on Heaven or Las Vegas (the album title even hints at this, showing the band is somewhat aware of their own sell out).
There is a drop off in quality of songs on this record, which bothers me after the masterpiece that was Blue Bell Knoll. Some people would either not be affected (most people) or be extremely bored (people with good taste) and the temptation would be to stop listening to the record after “Fotzepolitic”. But, what’s this?!? The last three songs come back and almost save the album! “Wolf in the Breast” has one of the band’s best choruses ever and again you can’t really comprehend what Fraser is saying (thank god); “Road, River, and Rail” gives off emotion through melody like the group’s best songs; “Frou Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” is yet another cresendoing album closer, as always this group has great album enders. True, NOT EVERY SIGNLE WORD of what Fraser sings can be understood on this record, but too much of it can for my taste; it sounds more like she is singing oriental music here than ‘alien space rock’ music, which ultimately fails. There are enough songs for die hard fans to appreciate, and it is definitely not bad music, but the shift to a radio friendly sound keeps the record from truly taking off the ground.
Greatest Songs – Wolf in the Breast, Road River and Rail, Frou Frou Foxes, Cherry Colored Funk
Four Calendar Café – (2 / 5)
More relaxed and laid back, this Cocteau twins record goes further into the realm of music that is inconsequential. This music, with superficial construction and zero dynamic ability, makes no real impact. Dynamics and surprises are what made Cocteau Twins great, and in the era of grunge and brit-pop they seem completely lost. Few songs stick out or make an impact as this album is a shell of what they used to be. Easily my least favorite of their record, though it is more ‘forgettable’ than really bad or anything.
Greatest Songs – My Truth, Evangeline
Milk and Kisses – (3 / 5)
More of the same, the band’s final album does not count among their 1980’s masterworks. It should be noted though, that in the mid 1990’s the group can still craft excellent sounding singles. The vocal trick laden “Calfskin Smack” is a gem, and “Tishbite” is pretty much a perfect example of the Cocteau Twins dream pop style. “Rikean Heart” should also not be overlooked as it is a decent song. The group is obviously influenced by some modern slowcore and dream pop groups, especially Red House Painters on the track “Ups” (the backing drum track is almost plagiarism of the band’s “Grace Cathedral Park”) and “Eperdu” is a neat little tune that recalls Mark Kramer’s 1980’s and 90’s production work. As always, the album closer is worth a listen as a grand finale to the band’s ovure; “Seekers Who are Lovers” lets Fraser soar as an opera singer. More so the Four Calendar Café, in my opinion, Milk and Kisses takes us back to a band that exists in its own universe regardless of the styles and sounds of the time. For that alone, the band deserves its place in my own personal rock n roll hall of fame.
Greatest Songs – Tishbite, Calfskin Smack, Seekers Who are Lovers
Sidenote: someday I will get to their many EP’s and compilations 😛