Wednesday, 23 May 2012

LaRM day 82 (Cocteau Twins)

And the monumentally lovely work continued with the stunning Aikea-Guinea EP (1985), which like Treasure, combines the creatively adventurous with the esoterically emotional. Bearing in mind that this was the point at which Fraser had reduced her lyrics to noises rather than words it's astonishing just how moving these songs are. I suppose knowing that on paper there are actual words lends itself to also knowing that she's singing stuff that's personal, too much so in fact to be able to truly articulate. It's a fascinating idea and should be tragically pretentious, but instead it's completely absorbing, and it also means that the songs become the listener's property. Musically the first two songs on Aikea-Guinea (the title track and 'Kookaburra') feel much more upbeat and airy than anything on Treasure and it's thrilling to hear this kind of wilful experimentation sound so joyous. The other two are slightly more sombre, but they're still wonderful things. The next two EPs, Tiny Dynamine and Echoes In a Shallow Bay (both also 1985) are slightly less successful as they rely quite heavily on keyboard textures to create a gently drifting wash of sound which has, unfortunately, become a little dated. That's a great shame because one of the truly remarkable things about the Cocteau Twins records after Peppermint Pig is that, drum machine excepted, they've managed to remain essentially timeless. I think that the band had begun taking cues from Harold Budd (with whom they made an album the following year) and other ambient experimentalists and Tiny Dynamine and Echoes In a Shallow Bay suffer the misfortune of influence. The tunes themselves are still absolutely gorgeous and there are some songs that aren't affected ('Plain Tiger' and 'Sultitan Itan' from Tiny Dynamine, 'Eggs and Their Shells' from Echoes In a Shallow Bay) and there's no getting round the fact that lesser, dated Cocteau Twins records are still head and shoulders above virtually everything else that was being made at the time and certainly a long way ahead in terms of creative thinking.

A compilation album was released for the US market only called The Pink Opaque (1985) the contents of which are cribbed from each of the preceding releases, but it has one previously unreleased song, 'Millimillenary', which is absolutely gorgeous. The next album was 1986's Victorialand which I think was probably their most high profile record. It's very much a mood album, it's gossamer delicate and incredibly subtle, the melodies as fragile and as oblique as the sound. There's a much heavier focus on Guthrie's massively treated acoustic guitar playing and Victorialand as a whole sounds much more distant and gentle than anything they had recorded before. In some ways it's a misty kind of sound, keeping the listener at something of a distance, but that doesn't stop it from being insidiously affecting. It's certainly the closest that the band came to being "precious", it's a rather fey affair, but that's not to say that it isn't stunningly beautiful. I think Victorialand was a make or break album for many fans, some finding it just too insular and frankly, too wet. Not me though, I love it. Then it's easily the best EP that the Cocteau Twins recorded, Love's Easy Tears (1986). The three songs on this record are absolutely sublime, delicate, unaggressively assuming and very moving. Liz Fraser's voice has reached it's peak, a swooping, soaring instrument which achieves the most incredible balance between fragility and stridency. Guthrie's music has less thrown into it and it's the songs themselves that are impressive on these songs. All three are staggering, but 'Those Eyes-That Mouth' and 'Sighs Smell of Farewell' are possibly the two greatest of the band's manifold artistic achievements (the latter has possibly the most extraordinarily effective simple key change I've ever heard).

The collaboration with Harold Budd, The Moon and the Melodies (1986), really continues the Victorialand mood and deals for the most part in slow, languid mood pieces which rely heavily on Fraser's voice for real interest. The piano parts are pretty standard Budd, laden with reverb and there are a few added bits and pieces (a saxophone at one point which surprisingly doesn't completely break the mood, but then it too is soaked in reverb and buried in the mix). It's a beautiful record, no mistake, but I think it is too much of a genre (it really does belong with Budd's other work as a piece of New Age modern classical) and is something of an anomoly (although not a glaring one) in the Cocteau Twins catalogue. The next record, Blue Bell Knoll (1988) is the band's last really wonderful album, sounding relaxed and confident in its eccentricity, and it's a little like the world had begun to catch up with them and what they were doing. It's the first of their albums that sounds like it truly belongs in an indie albums chart. The songs are relatively brief, clean and concisely structured, there's no drifting about on Blue Bell Knoll. The chiming, endlessly treated guitars are the same as ever, Raymonde's bass drive and Fraser's voice the same, but there's a breezy air to Blue Bell Knoll which really suits the band, but it does suggest at the same time that there not be much further for them to go. As songs, some of their best material is on Blue Bell Knoll, it's certainly not their best work, but has their best actual songs. If anything, and this sounds like faint praise but isn't intended to be, it's the first time a record of theirs has been simply charming.

For some reason that I can't work out I haven't got the lovely next album (Heaven or Las Vegas) or the sub-standard follow-up (Four Calendar Cafe) so it's straight on to the inexplicable Snow single (1993). Of all the bands to release a Christmas single the Cocteau Twins would have come at the end of a list I would have thought, yet here it is, covers of 'Winter Wonderland' and 'Frosty the Snowman' done in Cocteaus style. It's terrible. If it's a light-hearted gag it isn't funny, if it's to show that they aren't po-faced it doesn't work and if it's serious then I'm totally mystified. I can only assume that bearing in mind relations between the band members were strained to say the least by this point and apparently Guthrie was deep into a relationship with creativity's enemy heroin, that it was just an ill-advised idea by people whose minds were elsewhere. Just over a year later the last record that they were to make was released. Milk and Kisses (1995) is a relatively half-hearted affair and it's a rather sad end to a truly landmark musical career. There are nice songs on Milk and Kisses, but the problem is that all that groundbreaking stuff ended with simply quite nice songs. I suppose maybe really the truth is that Milk & Kisses sounds relatively unimpressive simply because it isn't adding to what they had already achieved. If it were the first record they released it would be an incredibly good, innovative piece of work, but as it is it's their ninth and they had already done the innovating and Milk and Kisses is retreading their own singular path.

Finally for the Cocteau Twins it's the BBC's double CD collection of all of the sessions that they recorded for BBC radio. Arranged in chronological order it's fascinating to listen to how the band developed and which songs they chose to showcase at any given point in their career. There are also a handful of early songs which never made it to an official release, which adds another level of interest. I can only imagine that it must have been pretty tricky to recreate the layered effects of the records in the BBC studios, but for the most part they pull it off pretty well and as the years went by they clearly grew more adept at it.

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