An Essential Guide to Cocteau Twins
Published Jun 10, 2015Slowdive's Neil Halstead said it best in music doc Beautiful Noise: "[Cocteau Twins are] just incredibly beautiful. It didn't sound like anything I think I'd ever heard before. And I think it took a few listens to try and figure out what was really going on, and get your head around the fact that they were vocals but they weren't actually in words I could recognize. So I was pretty blown away."
Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie were just two impossibly diffident teenagers in love when they managed to change the face of independent music in the UK by giving birth to a sound that would eventually be christened "dream pop." Formed in 1979 with Will Heggie on bass, Cocteau Twins were mostly influenced by brooding post-punk bands, following the shadowy, gothic paths of bands like Bauhaus and Siouxsie & the Banshees. But that didn't last long.
Fraser's icy cooing of sweet nothing earned her the nickname "Voice of God," as no one could quite distinguish her beautifully enigmatic words and to every fan they sounded like ambiguous messages from heaven. Guthrie, on the other end, effortlessly produced these swathing guitar tones that turned him into an influence for those who preferred their guitar gods to be shrinking violets. With these two forces at work, the Cocteaus transformed into a sublime and inimitable act.
In their 17-year existence, the band — who would add mainstay Simon Raymonde on bass in 1984 — carved a unique niche of their own, while demonstrating a prolific streak that rivalled the Beatles in the 1960s. Between 1982 and 1990, they released seven full-length albums, a handful of which are considered classics, as well as 12 EPs, on top of various collaborations. And while afterwards it became more of a struggle, that eight-year run is a remarkable achievement. Of course, their music also helped inspire countless successors like Slowdive, Cranes, Lush and Sigur Rós to make their own heavily textured, iridescent sounds. And while Cocteau Twins never met phenomenal mainstream success, they became a cult phenomenon on both sides of the pond — even famously causing "Cocteau Fever" during a stop in Columbus, OH.
At a time when bands of their ilk are reuniting for another hurrah, the Cocteaus seem to be content with letting their legacy speak for itself. But that hasn't stopped interest in their extensive catalogue from building year after year. Following last summer's reissues of 1988's Blue Bell Knoll and 1990's Heaven or Las Vegas, two more long-deleted releases of theirs will be available again on July 21: 1985 compilation, The Pink Opaque, and the double-EP combo of Tiny Dynamite and Echoes in a Shallow Bay. And you know what that means — it's the perfect time for An Essential Guide to Cocteau Twins.
Few would have guessed the Cocteaus would turn around and go acoustic on the follow-up to their masterpiece, Treasure, but that's just what Fraser and Guthrie did. Simon Raymonde took a temporary leave to help Ivo Watts-Russell write the second This Mortal Coil album, Filigree and Shadow, and so the two used this as an opportunity to "mess around" in the studio with a minimal setup. Without Raymonde, Victorialand wanders more into the realms of ambient and new age, but it sails much smoother than any of the band's other material. It's hard not to argue the heavy new age vibes on a song like "Oomingmak," where Fraser is literally singing gibberish over Guthrie's guitar chimes, but it's delightfully so. Guthrie called in Richard Thomas of labelmates Dif Juz to contribute, and his contributions are subtle but so deliciously effective. He oozes out his saxophone on the faint winds of "Lazy Calm" and provides some hypnotic tabla playing on "Feet-Like Fins." While it may have been made using acoustic instruments, it hardly sounds of it. But one thing is for sure: it sounds like no other release in their discography, which is all part of its allure.
4. Blue Bell Knoll
With their own London studio and now signed to Capitol in North America, the band were allowed to take the time they needed to make Blue Bell Knoll, hence the lack of a release in 1987. Although it was recorded as Guthrie's cocaine habit escalated, with all three of the members in the studio they sounded more confident and intrepid than ever. With the band self-producing for the first time, new roles were taken on, like Raymonde's growing use of the piano and harpsichord, as well as gambles, like the electronic loops used in the album opening title track and "A Kissed Out Red Floatboat." Of course, Fraser steals the show with her range, which flourished after learning how to sing properly. The pinnacle of all their work is found on the exquisite "Carolyn's Fingers," one of their most memorable singles thanks to the dumbfounding gymnastics Fraser's voice demonstrates as she riffs wild-eyed prose over Raymonde's baggy rhythms. At the time, it was their most daring creation yet, but BBK was also a vivid, wide-screen pop album that managed to express this band's versatility, much like its two predecessors, The Moon and the Melodies and Victorialand.
3. Head Over Heels
Oddly enough the significant transformation that occurred with the second Cocteaus album came at the expense of losing Heggie, who left the band. Having moved to London, Guthrie filled in on the bass where needed, but at this point, it was all about their two greatest weapons: the voice and guitar. Head Over Heels was a commercial breakthrough for both the band and 4AD — it did well on the charts and became a favourite of John Peel, who played the entire record on his show. But more than anything, it was a creative breakthrough, digging them out of the goth pigeonhole the press had thrown them in. The title was no coincidence: the chemistry between Guthrie and Fraser was as magical in their personal relationship as it was in their professional one. And as a duo, they decided to take chances with virtually every track. "Multifoiled" has a phlegmatic rockabilly lean to it, "In Our Angelhood" is both post-punk and proto-shoegaze, and the dizzying "Sugar Hiccup" could singlehandedly be the conception of dream pop.
While Fraser and Guthrie found their footing with Head Over Heels, bringing in Simon Raymonde on bass proved to be a valuable addition and an important step in establishing their signature sound that would make them so influential. At the time, the Cocteaus had experienced some success in the charts, but Treasure changed everything. Originally, Watts-Russell tried to hire Brian Eno to produce, with Daniel Lanois along to help, but Eno felt they didn't need him, and Guthrie ended up producing in the end. Although the idea of Treasure as an "Eno-Lanois production" sounds enticing, it's impossible to imagine how this album could have turned out better. From start to finish, it's an exotic listen: the hypnotic medieval chiming of "Beatrix," Fraser's sensual whispers crashing into waves on the beatific "Otterley," and the sprawling, grandiose climax of "Donimo" that closes it out. However, "Lorelei" remains to be an untouchable achievement, and their trademark song. To withhold this from commercial release was a completely baffling oversight, for it very well could have been their first Top 20 single in the UK.
Treasure is held close to the heart by many fans and is often a toss-up for the best thing they've ever done. So inspired was Melody Maker writer Steve Sutherland that he infamously wrote "surely this band is the voice of God," while in the music doc Beautiful Noise, the Cure's Robert Smith fawned over the album, calling it "the most romantic sound I've ever heard." Go figure then that the band aren't fond of Treasure themselves — Guthrie once called it "our worst album by a mile." But for everyone else, that title doesn't lie. Treasure was the model for following dream pop acts to top. Many have tried over the years, but none have managed to yet.
1. Heaven or Las Vegas
Guthrie and Fraser welcomed a baby daughter in 1989, a year that is struck from their discography, understandably. They also took over Pete Townshend's Eel Pie studio, which they renamed September Sound. Like Blue Bell Knoll, Guthrie was heavily relying on drugs during the recording process, which reportedly gave him deep paranoia. But it's difficult to tell, as his celestial production work is brighter and sharper — he clearly took full advantage of the gear available at his disposal inside Townshend's studio. In the end, they made what many people feel was their greatest work, Heaven or Las Vegas.
The album's lean towards pop song structures made it the most accessible thing they'd done at the time, large in part to Fraser's vocals, which became more intelligible. Fraser was said to have sung most of her takes holding her daughter, Lucy Belle, and it's clear in her lyrics to "Iceblink Luck" and "Pitch the Baby" that motherhood became her greatest asset. The songs also offered a wider spectrum of sounds, as heard in the cascading funk of "Pitch the Baby" and the romantic easy listener "I Wear Your Ring." Heaven or Las Vegas was both a triumphant and watershed moment for the band — despite its success both creatively and commercially, it would be the last album they'd release on 4AD before being dropped. The irony was that label boss Ivo Watts-Russell felt it was the best thing he'd ever released, describing it as "a perfect record." No argument here.
What to Avoid:
As a debut album, Garlands was an adequate introduction to a band just starting out. However, the dark, rumbling post-punk they were unfurling felt more like a retread of previous albums, like the Cure's Faith and Siouxsie's Kaleidoscope. Still, rumblings like "Shallow Then Halo" and "Wax and Wane" showed there were plenty of progressive ideas bubbling underneath the surface. Most bands of their time were known for their debut albums, but this wasn't one of them.
After Cocteau Twins left 4AD they signed to Fontana, which was a subsidiary of major label Polygram and home to fellow indie alumni like the House of Love and James. They released two albums with the label before calling it a day in 1997. The first was 1993's Four-Calendar Café, which proved to be quite illustrative of the period: programmed drum loops, spoon-fed melodies and a shift towards the "adult-alternative" style that flourished in the decade. Guthrie was trying to clean himself up, and in the process, they made an entirely placid album that didn't quite offer the same dizzying euphoria as its predecessors. They seemed uninspired and wanting to play it safe. But as safe as the album was, "Evangeline" is an absolute stunner of a single.
Their swan song, 1996's Milk & Kisses, suffered from similar drawbacks, though it presented an interesting first: it was recorded following the break-up of Fraser and Guthrie in 1993. Despite being marginally superior to Four-Calendar Café, it just seemed like the band had lost their curiosity for making music that was unique and idyllic. At this point, they were no longer the innovators they once were, so maybe it was for the best when the band called it quits in 1998 as they were working on one final album.
Skip the 4AD-spanning "best of" Stars and Topsoil - A Collection (1982-1990), and instead spend your money on the more comprehensive EPs collection Lullabies to Violaine. This four-disc compilation neatly compiles the band's 16 EPs, some of which are worthy enough to rival the five essential albums. For those looking to just collect the EPs and singles, start with 1984's The Spangle Maker featuring single "Pearly Dewdrops' Drops," 1985's Aikea-Guinea, and the newly reissued double-shot of 1985's Tiny Dynamine and Echoes in a Shallow Bay. Of course most of them are worth collecting individually for the equally as mystifying artwork by Vaughan Oliver and 23 Envelope.
Despite the insistence on using all of the individual names involved, The Moon and the Melodies (1986) is pretty much a Cocteau Twins album featuring ambient jazz composer and regular Brian Eno collaborator Harold Budd on piano. In fact, half of the album feels more like an improvised session between Guthrie and Budd (a partnership that will eventually produce many albums together), but "Sea, Swallow Me" is hands down one of the most brilliant things either side has ever put to tape.
Again, This Mortal Coil's It'll End in Tears wasn't an official Cocteau Twins album either — a point the band were more than bothered by over the years — however, it did involve the participation of all three members. The studio project of 4AD boss Ivo Watts-Russell and John Fryer, This Mortal Coil was a loose collective featuring a revolving cast of artists mostly affiliated with the label. Between 1984 and 1991, there were three albums, two of which featured Raymonde heavily. But it's 1984's masterpiece It'll End in Tears that rivals the best work of Fraser, Guthrie and Raymonde. Their breathtakingly transcendent cover of Tim Buckley's "Song to the Siren" was not only a landmark achievement for the project — it spent 101 weeks on the UK Indie Charts— it also became heavily influential in the work of David Lynch, who used it as the prime influence for music in Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Lost Highway.