Posts Tagged ‘robin guthrie’

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Three Cocteau Twins Reviews

December 28, 2007

Sunburst And Snowblind

A great little EP to accompany one of my favorite Twins’ albums, Head Over Heels. The version of Sugar Hiccup here is superior, and makes the original version obsolete. From The Flagstones and Hitherto are wonderful songs, arguably better than some songs on Head Over Heels, but Because of Whirl-Jack isn’t as good, although a nice inclusion. I am pretty sure this rounds off the released material from the Head Over Heels sessions. There is no reason not to get this one. It only enhances the album which it accompanies, which was already nearly perfect.

The Spangle Maker

One of the most overrated Cocteau Twins releases. People often cite Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops as a turning point in quality for the band, but I personally find it trite and annoying, and one of Fraser’s most contrived vocal performances. The Spangle Maker is a frequent fan favorite, but the tune is tired and uninspired. Fraser’s vocals once again take a fall, only spending a tiny amount of the nearly five minute song delivering characteristically excellent vocals, the rest of which is some of the least melodic of her repertoire. Pepper-Tree is the saving grace. It is quite nice. However, in general, this three song EP is pretty weak. It seems to spark something for other people, but it was only worth it to me for the sake of completion.

BBC Sessions

This two disk set of BBC recordings of Cocteau Twins are useless and peripheral upon first glance, but closer listening opens up their purposes. One initial strikeout is how lopsided the collection is in respect to the breadth of their career. The lions share of these recordings are of songs from the Garlands and Head Over Heels eras, while the bands most popular periods, of Treasure and Blue Bell Knoll are given little and no attention respectively.

The reasoning for this becomes clear to fans upon closer inspection. The truth is, the Garlands era songs are generally exceptional but poorly produced and hampered by Fraser’s then unhoned vocals. Coming back to these tracks with an updated knowledge of production and better instrumental skill does the band good, and most of these songs deserve their facelifts. The collection is led of with Wax And Wane, and with a faster tempo and more clearly produced haunting instrumentals, feels utterly complete. A few songs that were once negligible are now standouts, namely Feathers-Oars-Blades, Strange Fruit, and My Hue And Cry. And the songs that were already fantastic are also given quality, often times unique deliveries. The wonder of the re-recording of Blind Dumb Deaf is just one the many surprises to be found here. In the said track, the steady drum machine fires off cold beats quickly int the void as the bass plays a hypnotic rolling as if on a wooden ship under the dancing storm that is Guthrie’s satanic guitars. Fraser sings in the middle of all this, unphased, as if some untouchable angel.

It doesn’t sound very likely, but these versions do bring out the best of their songs, and they reveal that even in their primal, incomplete stage, the Cocteau Twins were one hell of a band. Also particularly nice are the new versions of Hazel and Hitherto. The former is the Twins’ most relentless gothic assault and arguably their heaviest song, and Hitherto is a beautiful, tragic number that can be likened to Musette And Drums.

This collection is by no means perfect, and on the second disk, the quality takes a nosedive with the Treasure era tracks and continuing through the Twins’ Capitol albums Four Calendar Cafe and Milk And Kisses. Everything past Beatrix is flat out mediocre, save a very beautiful cut of Otterley. The bands most popular album, Heaven or Las Vegas, is only given one song, and Victorialand and Blue Bell Knoll are completely ignored. However, the majority of the first disk and a good chunk of the second are filled with revised versions of some of the Twins’ most perplexing tunes that are revised and touched up to as perfect as they will ever be. This is not an essential Cocteau Twins release, but considering the state of the Cocteau Twins fanbase (that is, only rabid), there are many goodies to be found here, especially in respect to Garlands and Head Over Heels.

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Cocteau Twins – Head Over Heels

January 25, 2007

As far as Cocteau Twins records go, the question is never whether or not it is great, but instead how great it is. The band made a point to make comforting records, at least save Garlands, and as jarring as it is, Head Over Heels is actually one of the more comforting they made. Sound-wise it is one of the bands more dark and disturbing records, although it does have it’s gorgeous moments, but what makes this record truly comforting is the fact that it lays down the foundation for even greater things to come while delivering a solid set of songs. By the time this was recorded, the groups original bassist quit the lineup and Robin Guthrie and Liz Fraser were left by themselves. Setback? Hardly. It just so happens that the second Will Heggie left, the remaining duo made their first great album, and arguably their best. Instead of being as accessible or serenely beautiful as Treasure or Heaven or Las Vegas, it is a challenging and strange record that actually ends up being just as rewarding and interesting.

While Head Over Heels may seem a bit unrefined in comparisson to later Cocteau records, you need to keep in mind that this truly defined the bands sound. From the opening drones of When Mama Was Moth, Head Over Heels innovates at every turn. You can still hear an echo of Garlands’ songwriting style even in the opening track, but very distantly. The song is tame yet dark, and Liz Frasers hymns are spot on, expressing some kind of angelic mysticism in a creepy sort of way. The next song Five Ten Fiftyfold expands on this darkness in a surprisingly catchy way, staying almost even a bit bleak with it’s minor tones and guitar squalls while Fraser resounds at her absolute best. The albums most mysteriously dark and yet touching moment comes later though, with The Tinderbox (Of A Heart), a knockout performance on every level. The song has the signature Guthrie beautiful guitar drones and picking in conjunction with beautiful changs by Fraser. Don’t let anyone fool you, while people may say that Blue Bell Knoll is the bands darkest record, it just isn’t. This takes the cake in that category, if you could ever consider any of the Cocteau Twins’ records truly “dark.”

Keep in mind that this album was made before Simon Raymonde joined the group and therefore still doesn’t have their signature aching beauty. This would come soon enough with The Spangle Maker EP and consequently Treasure, but it’s not like everything on this record isn’t spot on as it is. Robin Guthrie and Liz Fraser deliver on every level they possibly could, Guthrie reinventing their sound from the ground up to a distinctive hypnotic guitar-laden heaven, and Fraser giving one of her best vocal performances. Not every song is dark or anything, it just kind of seems like it. The albums clear winner is Sugar Hiccup, a lovely dreampop masterpiece. What really amazes me is how much Guthrie truly manages by himself in the song creation department. While I’m sure that Fraser contributed more than just her knockout vocals, Guthrie is the man behind the tunes themselves, and would be until Raymonde joined in and shared the weight, but considering that these songs are just as pretty as most of the bands later work, Guthrie deserves a big pat on the back for his efforts here.

There is actually a lot of variety here, at least for a Twins record. But really, every Cocteau Twins song is extremely individual and can be treated like it’s own treasure. I do feel that stylistically, Head Over Heels is particulary varied. In Our Angelhood is the most telling of the bands roots. It plays like something earlier by The Cure and almost touches on punk, in a pretty sort of way. It’s just about the most upbeat or at least the most grooving you will ever hear the band, and is truly one of the cooler songs the band made. And yet for how recognizably cool many of these songs are, the album is truly a challenging listen. Sometimes Fraser’s vocals are downright eccentric, especially on Glass Candle Grenades and the following In The Gold Dust Rush. These two songs especially take a long time to get used to and fully appreciate, but the effort pays off and at their core these two songs are truly fantastic. And Multifoiled is another tough entry, completely out of place with it’s late night bar jazz groove, and yet is a lot of fun. The album concludes a bit more conventionally though with two vintage Twins tracks, My Love Paramour and Mussette and Drums. The former is a grand hypnotic groove, and the latter is one of the albums strongest, an emotional explosion of beautiful guitars and Fraser’s always beautiful singing.

If you are new to the Cocteau Twins, you are better off starting elsewhere, but this album is classic, no question. People have complaints about it of course, but for the most part I think they are mostly due to the fact that this album jumps all over the place and was really before The Twins layed down their perfect sound, which they would subsequently do with Treasure. But as a sophomore album (and it’s usually that second one that really shows a bands talent, isn’t it?), this record cast aside all the dreary unexciting sound that Garlands was and created something completely new, using Liz’s vocals to their fullest and innovating at every turn with Guthrie’s guitars and unbelievable musicality. That is what makes this album truly comforting…the thought that there is still so much brilliance ahead of the band and that from as good of a record as this is, it only gets better. Once again, this is the Cocteau Twins not quite at the top but getting very close. It may not be as pretty and dreamy as Blue Bell Knoll or the bands swan song Treasure, but Head Over Heels is a wonderful record in it’s own right, in all of it’s dark, uneasy glory.

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Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas

January 1, 2007

They say that there is no such thing as a casual Cocteau Twins fan. I’m starting to believe this more the more often I turn on my iPod. I can feel myself getting sucked into the bands undeniable beauty, and I’ll admit it, it feels great. I’m a straight male, and my heart got melted the first time I heard Lorelei. I didn’t know what to make of it, it was just so beautiful. At first I felt like I could break this habit by being a casual listener, but I think I may have completely skipped that classification without even having more than a few of the bands albums. The Best Of compilation Stars And Topsoil was nice, but simply not enough. I had to have more. So I got Treasure, the bands supposed best, and Heaven or Las Vegas, supposedly the second, third, or fourth best depending on the fan you ask. I was not disappointed. I love both albums thoroughly and yet I thirst for more. It is hard to say which of those two albums is better. If I had to really come to a decision, I would probably say Treasure, but both are fantastic. While Treasure is the album for a chill winter morning, Heaven or Las Vegas is conversely the album for a warm summer night. It takes a very talented band to make music of such opposite environments work so perfectly, and to be sure the Cocteau Twins will never fail you regardless of the time of day, and that is a reliability worth falling in love with.

In many situations, first impressions mean everything. In that respect the Twins know how to give you the best possible first impression possible when presenting their work to the listener. They did it with Treasure, that’s for sure, with a near flawless opening trio of songs. And they do it here too with the utmost precision and beauty. But even before listening to the music, the band has already shown you beauty even with the cover art. In many ways, this art encompasses the album very well. The music is blurry, surreal, artistic, urban, and drenched in warm neon. Every song is hand picked, like the rest of the Cocteau’s catalogue, and every song is very individual and special. The opening track, Cherry-Coloured Funk, echoes of aching beauty and special love that most other bands could not dream of musically working out through their entire careers. The Cocteaus could do it in their fucking sleep, and the listener would be left begging for more. The talent of these people is not to be underspoken. Very few others have surpassed this beauty of this band, you have to understand that. I’m still trying to come to grips with this fact even after only having two proper albums.

The style on this album is very urban but no less lush, tame, or special. Vocalist Liz Fraser (who may just be the best female vocalist in pop music history), has changed her style a bit, leaving her musings more intelligible. On albums such as Treasure, her words were not even words so much as angelic sounds and phrases that had no real connection to any other language. On this album she sings some unintelligible vocals like these, and some that are clearly meant to be real words that are simply warped a bit to sound more pretty. You can understand them sometimes, and when Ms. Fraser sings “Is this Heaven or Las Vegas?” on the title track, you really believe that she’s wondering such things about the city that never sleeps. Even when you can understand individual words around one another, they don’t make much sense, as Fraser wisely speaks more to how the words sound as opposed to what they actually mean. The bass plays a much heavier role, especially in the flowing dream-funk of the creepily named Pitch The Baby. Of course this role is passive and non-intrusive, and it works wonders. Robin Guthrie gives a knockout performance all over with his guitar work providing sonic texture for each song. Often times Guthrie ends up being the warm blanket to the listeners ears, and while his guitarwork is never extravagant, it always sounds delicious and ephemeral. This style is something that all guitar plays should be jealous of. Mr. Guthrie has a way with making one or two guitars feel like a thousand and therefore saying huge amounts of ideas with not so much to work with. While Liz Fraser may be the heart of the band, Guthrie is the soul and has a fantastic body of work to be proud of.

And as always, the drum machine is here, masterfully worked as usual. The beats are kept soft and many times slow, yet all the more driving than usual. Great stuff. They never fail to use the medium well.

On a side note, I have never been to Las Vegas but have heard both very good and very bad things about it. I think one thing that can’t be denied, even just from looking at pictures, is the beauty of the city at night. I have always been partial to driving around at night in urban areas, just to see all the lights. Sometimes I take pictures of all the neon as a passenger and I adore the feeling that all the blurred lights give me. From a photographers standpoint, Las Vegas would surely be heaven. I could never see myself living out in the country just because the lights would be so few and far between. While I do think I’d love to see the night sky lit up over a landscape that isn’t polluted by unnatural light, I have a natural attraction to not only large groups of people but also city lights, especially reflected through wet city pavement. Consequently, this has ended up being a very special album to me already.

Once again, the opening part is the best. There is a great one-two punch of Cherry-Coloured Funk followed by Pitch The Baby, two timeless songs, and if those weren’t great enough then Iceblink Luck will hit your soft side. It is a fruitful celebration of sorts, rejoicing over a loved ones ability to heal. It is absolutely gorgeous and one of the bands absolute best songs. I think a lot of times dream-pop bands forget that romance is key to their genre, and they sacrafice a bit of meaning for the sake of not seeming to sappy or something. Maybe it is a gift that the Twins can communicate these feelings of romance perfectly, but it is also a gift that they are not ashamed to do so. Iceblink Luck is this breed of sheer bliss. But the great tracks continue to expand beautifuly with multiple listens, Fifty-Fifty Clown and the title track being just as unspeakably beautiful as their predecessors. If there is any place where the album falters a bit, it is in the fact that the second half of the album is a bit less consistant than the first. This, however, can only be complained about so much, because the first half of the album is sheer perfection, five songs worthy of more awards than can be given. To say that the second half of the album is “only great” is a crime, because the whole damn thing is great. You just have to treat every song like an individual and things unwrap very nicely. Especially the ending… Oh, the ending. You have to kind of hear that to really understand it, so I won’t tell you anything about it. Listen to it with your heart in place and you will be taken away.

It’s okay to sound sappy sometimes. I get sappy when certain music comes on, this band producting some of that music. While this may not be better than some of the bands other work, namely Treasure and other albums that some other more knowledgeable fans will tell you of, it is still a killer album, and a true classic of it’s age. It is clearly the more accessible and poppy side of the bands work, and anyone who has any urban loves like I do or a desire to listen to good dream pop will NEED this album.

By the way, if you ever needed any proof that Liz Fraser is the best of her kind, watch this and prepare to be dropped gently to the floor.

And here is a video from the album, just as another piece of the beautiful puzzle.