On their first album, Scotland’s Cocteau Twins add a borrowed drum synthesizer to vocals, bass and heavily treated guitar, producing atmospheric dirges with rich textures and little structure. Elizabeth Fraser’s vocals are essentially tuneless, and the backing goes nowhere, but it’s all artily agreeable enough for those with the patience to wade through the murk and mire. (The UK Garlands CD adds a 1983 John Peel radio broadcast and two previously unreleased studio tracks.)
Bassist Will Heggie then left (resurfacing in Lowlife), and Simon Raymonde joined Fraser and guitarist Robin Guthrie. Head Over Heels shows marked improvement, both in terms of songwriting technique and vocal performances. “Sugar Hiccup” (a different version of which appears on Sunburst and Snowblind) exhibits a stronger melodic sense, and Fraser’s voice soars on songs like “In the Gold Dust Rush” and “Musette and Drums.” The record also offers more varied tempos: the rather Bansheelike “In Our Angelhood” rocks more than anything the Cocteaus had previously done.
Sunburst and Snowblind is a strong four-song EP, well-honed for those who’d rather meet the Cocteau Twins in smaller doses. Delicate, precious yet accessible, the instrumental backing is a little thinner and the vocals more confident. Head Over Heels and Sunburst and Snowblind were issued together on CD and cassette.
Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drop strips down the sound a little further; “The Spangle Maker” and the title track even forgo much of the reverb that permeates their records. By this point, the Cocteau Twins had become ubiquitous figures in the alternative record charts and a major live attraction as well. Treasure stands as their finest hour. It contains no black and white sounds — just intriguing shades of gray — immersing the listener in a full range of emotions, with Fraser’s now-powerful voice alternately full of sorrow, joy, calm and fury. The production is meticulously detailed; increased use of keyboards and drums provides a wider range of tone colors. All ten diverse tracks work well; “Persephone” and “Ivo” are particularly noteworthy.
After Treasure, the Cocteaus ran a little short on new ideas. In 1985, they released three four-song EPs. Aikea-Guinea could pass as outtakes from previous albums, while Tiny Dynamine and Echoes in a Shallow Bay are virtually identical, in cover art as well as sound. On the following year’s Victorialand, almost all the instrumental backing is psychedelic-tinged treated acoustic guitar. While that opens things up and gives Fraser’s voice more room, the material again recalls earlier records. All of these works, if heard individually, are pleasant, effective mood music; taken as a whole, however, they’re all cut from the same cloth.
The Moon and the Melodies enlists pianist/minimalist composer/Eno collaborator Harold Budd and gives him equal billing. Let’s just say that the results don’t exactly kick butt; the band’s remaining redeeming feature, Fraser’s voice, sounds noticeably uninspired on the (only) three tracks where she appears. Those familiar with the band’s recent work, firmly entrenched in the dangerous realm of new age mush, will know what this one sounds like before the laser beam hits the CD.
Love’s Easy Tears is four tracks of déjà vu. The Pink Opaque, a career-spanning compilation, was originally issued as a British CD; the vinyl version became the band’s first American release. For Blue Bell Knoll, a 35-minute major-label debut, the band seemed content to stick with its well-defined formula of pleasant, florid aural wallpaper; the album is smoothly produced and utterly forgettable.
Whether it was Guthrie and Fraser’s parenthood, Guthrie’s outside production work with such groups as the Veldt and Lush or a visitation from aliens, something lit a fire under this somnolent band. Delivered at a point when the Cocteaus were veering dangerously close to self-parody, Heaven or Las Vegas reasserts their artistic respectability and then some. There are more actual songs here than on their past half-dozen releases combined. Such numbers as “Cherry-Coloured Funk” and “Iceblink Luck” are focused and emotionally involving, yet don’t skimp on the trademark atmospherics; Fraser even sings some of her lyrics in recognizable English. While the pacing isn’t drastically different, energetic playing, Fraser’s deeper range and new-found expressiveness and imaginative, less florid songwriting make Heaven or Las Vegas the first Cocteau Twins album to climb out of the trendy-muzak bin. The album plays not like an attempt at commercialism so much as a genuine effort to communicate more clearly.
Iceblink Luck showcases a catchy song (with the clearest words of any Twins single yet) from the LP and two non-album tracks, including the nearly funky “Watchlar.” The Heaven or Las Vegas EP includes one non-album track, the ambient “Dials.”
Four-Calendar Café continues the trend toward clarity, adding a slightly earthy edge that nicely balances the ethereality. Standout tracks like “Know Who You Are at Every Age,” “Bluebeard” and “Squeeze-Wax” rank with the group’s most memorable and melodically accessible work.
The two 1995 EPs find the Cocteaus exploring alternative approaches with mixed success. Twinlights features acoustic versions of three new songs and 1985’s “Pink Orange Red”; it’s the Cocteaus at their most restrained and unadorned, and unfussy clarity makes it a low-key winner. The ambient-flavored Otherness combines two new songs with “Cherry-Coloured Funk” (from Heaven or Las Vegas) and “Feet Like Fins” (from Victorialand), all remixed by Mark Clifford of Seefeel; the result is vaguely interesting as a convergence of disparate genres, but not a particularly fulfilling listen.
Milk & Kisses reprises “Rilkean Heart” from Twinlights and “Violaine” and “Seekers Who Are Lovers” from Otherness, all in more characteristically Cocteauesque versions. Elsewhere, the album maintains the organic, approachable mood of Heaven or Las Vegas and Four-Calendar Café, making it one of the Twins’ smoothest — and most satisfying — concoctions.
Cocteau Twins (1991) is a deluxe boxed set of CDs that repackages the group’s 4AD EPs (Sunburst and Snowblind, Pearly Dewdrops’ Drop, Aikea-Guinea, Tiny Dynamine, Echoes in a Shallow Bay, Love’s Easy Tears and Iceblink Luck), adding a four-track bonus disc.