AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #195 : COCTEAU TWINS

A DEBUT GUEST POSTING by SHA (aka Swedish Herring Accident)

Wandering round the recent exhibition Rip It Up: The Story of Scottish Pop at the National Museum of Scotland, it hurt my very soul that Cocteau Twins barely got a mention. Maybe they’re not pop, I said to myself. But now I see that we’ve reached almost 200 ICAs and not got around to addressing Cocteau Twins, I’m thinking something’s amiss. Maybe no-one’s brave or naive enough to have a crack at it – that’s a real possibility. It is, after all, a daunting body of work to reduce to a single album. But then, maybe it’s better to have a half-baked attempt than none at all. I’m definitely capable of that.

So here’s my offering. I’ve steered away from some of the more dissonant early stuff – not because it isn’t great, but because I wanted to create an album with a single sound, rather than a variety pack compilation. An album that captures the unmistakable mellifluous Cocteau Twins sensation that hovers between fluffy and deeply meaningful. Or caterwauling nonsense as my wife would put it. (JC adds….as would my wife!)

You’ll no doubt disagree with my choices – I disagree with them myself. I’ve murdered my darlings and made some unspeakably cruel omissions. I’ve also not shied away from popular/ obvious stuff just to prove that I’ve got Peppermint Pig or Moon And The Melodies. That said, this is no Best Of. Oh shut up now; just let the music flow over you.

Side 1.

Lazy Calm (from Victorialand).

An amazing and daring way to start an album, especially one as short as Victorialand. For a long time, I wasn’t certain that this wasn’t two tracks. The first half of this would form a perfect introduction to any other Cocteau Twins song. There was always a moment of tension between getting hold of a new Cocteau Twins album and playing it for the first time. “Have they lost it?” “Will it still be wonderful?” I should have never worried – within the first few moments of every Cocteau Twins album Liz’s voice would wash over me with a soothing wave of relief. None more so than this from 1985.

Love’s Easy Tears (from Love’s Easy Tears ep).

Got this from Probe in Liverpool the day it came out. I played it all evening until the others in my hall of residence asked me to stop. I thought I was the only person in the world who Liz and Robin could commune with. Then I read an interview in which Liz said this ep was some kind of tribute to 60s singers like Sandie Shaw and Dusty. That hadn’t occurred to me – not what I thought we were communing at all!

Carolyn’s Fingers (from Bluebell Knoll).

After Treasure, the wait for another album seemed interminable. Robin constantly claimed that each new offering wasn’t the real thing. Victorialand wasn’t a real album because it was just him and Liz messing around; Echoes in a Shallow Bay/ Tiny Dynamine wasn’t a real album because it was just some out-takes they’d polished up; Moon and the Melodies wasn’t a real album because it was a side project with Harold Budd. After all this methadone, when were we going to get a proper dose of the good stuff? And boy, when it arrived, Bluebell Knoll was the good stuff. And what’s this? Thank The Lord! A drummer! Carolyn’s Fingers is like a hug across the void.

In Our Angelhood (from Head Over Heels).

Head Over Heels is amazingly energetic – very little clue of the languid silkiness to come. Back when Cocteau Twins were still deciding who they wanted to be, bursting with creative spark, they put out songs like this with confidence and style.

Lorelei (from Treasure).

This is around the time the music press stopped trying to bracket Cocteau Twins – no more Siouxsie or Kate Bush analogies. They had found a voice and a sound of their own. Simon’s turned up with his safe hands on the rhythm section and his “Hyeah – I’m the bassist now” flourishes. For a while, this was head and shoulders the most exciting song I had ever heard. I thought it would need a whole Barnum and Bailey’s circus of performers to do it any justice on stage and at least three separate singers (I’m thinking twin sylph-like angels for the verse and a prowling vixen for the chorus). I still like to think that Cirque du Soleil should one day come to their senses and do a Cocteau Twins show. And when they do, this will be the opener.

Intermission

Fruitopia Commercial 1. They did an advert! It was two TV spots for Fruitopia, the Coca-Cola Company’s short-lived attempt to compete with the likes of Oasis and Snapple. I like to think that Robin finds discarded snippets like this in the bottom of his sock drawer and sells them off to passing art directors in 30-second stings.

Side 2

Bluebeard (from Four-Calendar Café).

In 1993 I was fed up with all the music in my collection and was listening to the radio in search of something new to get into. The moment I heard the gleaming guitar riff on this intro, I thought “That’s the one for me, I’ll go straight out and buy this.” By the time Liz’s vocals started, it was clear that everything I knew was true and that the world was spinning smoothly on its axis. Robin once said he couldn’t stand those Pink Floydy guitarists who can play all six strings at once; I think he manages at least three on this.

Sultitan Itan (from Tiny Dynamine).

Everything I read about Liz Fraser made her seem less real. Her favourite drink was Babycham and brandy. She cooked strawberries. Both of these were disgusting and expensive.

Heaven Or Las Vegas (from Heaven Or Las Vegas).

I chose nine out ten of these tracks without worrying about what anyone else was going to think. And then I had two problems – we need something from Heaven Or Las Vegas and we need one of those epic Side Two Showstoppers to propel us onwards.

Pur (from Four-Calendar Café).

In the natural order of Cocteau Twins albums, this is the where there’s a slow nebulous calm before the epic ending storm. With Pur, it’s fragile vulnerability erupting into velvet self-confidence. Sometimes, it pays not to listen to the words, just the voice. You risk getting a glimpse like this (and Bluebeard earlier) into an unhappy and crumbling relationship.

A Kissed-Out Red Floatboat (from Bluebell Knoll).

And this is how I want to die – this song is a Chinese lantern in the sunset. Let these exquisite twinkling harmonies, these shimmering tones lift you away into the ether like dandelion clocks in the breeze. Or caterwauling nonsense – you choose.

—oOo—

Mix and Match Bonus Session: These are the other songs I considered for track three on side two before chickening out and choosing Heaven Or Las Vegas:

(i) The Spangle Maker (from Pearly Dewdrops ep) – in the end this track is too big to be an album track. Leave it where it is with a whole side to itself;

(ii) Summerhead (from Four Calendar Café) – did they come full circle? This would have fitted on any Cocteau Twins album from Head Over heels onwards.

(iii) Squeeze-Wax (from Four-Calendar Café) – late period willowy breeziness at its very best.

Simply switch out one of these, according to taste. Other Sonic Cathedrals are available.

SHA

ALIVENESS, EXPLORATION, FULFILLMENT, CREATIVITY

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Back in 1993, The Cocteau Twins released the LP Four-Calendar Cafe.  It was a work which horrified many long-term fans given it was a lot lighter and poppier in places than just about anything previously. I can recall some fans being annoyed by the fact that in some of the songs you could make out some of the lyrics being sung by Liz Fraser….although let’s be honest it was hardly the stuff of Kylie or Bananarama.

The lead-off single is one of my favorites :-

mp3 : Cocteau Twins – Bluebeard

The 4AD book from a couple of years ago featured an extensive contribution from Robin Guthrie but not his erstwhile partner of old. It’s now very clear that this was a Liz lyric…aimed squarely at him as he battled the demons of drug and alcohol dependency; the extent of his problems were such that his behaviour drove his partner to undertake psychotherapy in an effort to resolve the underlying issues. A few years later, the band, as well as Liz and Robin’s relationship, dissolved in a very messy way.

In reaching #33, Bluebeard was one of their biggest successes as far as singles. Here’s what was also available on the CD:-

mp3 : Cocteau Twins – Three Swept
mp3 : Cocteau Twins – Ice-Pulse
mp3 : Cocteau Twins – Bluebeard (acoustic version)

Enjoy

MAJESTIC. UNWORDLY. EPIC. HAUNTING. GOTHIC. FLAWLESS. LOVELY. AND VERY OCCASIONALLY DANCEABLE…

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I’m currently ploughing my way through a really enjoyable book entitled Facing the Other Way, written by Martin Aston. It’s a really well-written account of the birth and growth of the highly respected and critically acclaimed indie label 4AD and already, about halfway through, I’ve learned a great deal about the music and the people involved in all aspects of the organisation.

I’ll get round to penning a full review in due course but for now would like to offer a few words on what I consider to be my favourite ever album to come out on 4AD.

The thing is, I’ve never really gotten into Cocteau Twins to any great depth and consider myself to be more of an admirer than a fan – and even then, if I listen to anything beyond about an hour’s worth of their music I get bored. Aside that is from Head Over Heels which I can listen to back-to-back quite happily.

This record forms a large part of the soundtrack to my carefree student days, particularly my first year living away from home. There were three of us who shared a flat and all of us, if truth be told, were music snobs. One of my flatmates was a huge fan of Cocteau Twins from the outset and tried hard to convince everyone of their merits. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them, but I didn’t quite get it. By late 1983 there had been one album and 2 EPs, all having the occasional track worth listening to but only in small doses. It certainly wasn’t music for going out to or for putting on if you wanted to continue the party. It was all a bit gloomy which was reinforced by my seeing them at Night Moves in Glasgow at a gig early on their career as support to The Fall.

At first listen, Head Over Heels didn’t seem too radical a departure. But on second and third listens, I began to hear things a wee bit differently – in particular the astonishing effects that Robin Guthrie had added to his guitar work. It was an album where a drum machine rather than a real sticksman seemed like a stroke of genius.

Before too long, this became my ‘go-to’ record when I just wanted to wind down after a hard night’s dancing and drinking. Maybe subconsciously I wanted its dream-like nature to settle me down quickly and peacefully within the land of nod…..that and the fact that a girl I was nuts about loved the record and it was a way of getting to talk to her without feeling too much of a dick.

Nothing came of my efforts to get to know said girl any better but I’m happy to say that didn’t lessen my fondness for this record. But having been drawn-in by the guitars, I was soon a convert to the vocals of Elizabeth Fraser. This is singing like nothing else on planet indie-pop. It’s just, for the most part, a series of noises and sounds and not actual words but they are the perfect match for the instrumentation. And in LP closer Musette and Drums you will find something that I consider truly special and up there among my favourite pieces of music of all time.

The thing is, Mrs Villain has never taken to Cocteau Twins – indeed it would be accurate to state that she hasn’t ever liked anything which features Ms Fraser on vocals – and so it’s a record that I had rarely played since 1990 when we first moved in together. But a few years back, just as I was approaching the age of 50, I began to compile a list of my favourite 50 LPs of all time and having included Head Over Heels on the long list I took it out of its sleeve for a spin and re-discovered it again, delighted that it remained every bit as special as I had remembered. I’ve never owned the LP on CD so the songs to accompany today’s words are from the 32-year old vinyl, scratches, jumps, bumps, hisses and all.

mp3 : Cocteau Twins – When Mama Was Moth
mp3 : Cocteau Twins – Five Ten Fiftyfold
mp3 : Cocteau Twins – Sugar Hiccup
mp3 : Cocteau Twins – The Tinderbox (of a Heart)
mp3 : Cocteau Twins – Musette and Drums

Enjoy

SATURDAY’S SCOTTISH SINGLE (Part 110)

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Some of you might think I’m cheating this week, but with a bit of music that is this exceptional, I’m prepared to bend the rules a bit.

This Mortal Coil are NOT a Scottish band and so shouldn’t really be in this alphabetical series.

This Mortal Coil was a project led by Ivo Watts-Russell, co-founder of the 4AD record label. Although Watts-Russell and John Fryer were technically the only two official members, the band’s recorded output featured a large rotating cast of supporting artists, many of whom were signed to, or otherwise associated with 4AD.

One of the label’s earliest signings was Modern English. In 1983, Watts-Russell suggested that they re-record two of their earliest songs, Sixteen Days and Gathering Dust as a medley on the basis that the band was closing its sets with such a medley and the label owner thought it was strong enough to warrant a re-recording. When Modern English rebuffed the idea, Watts-Russell decided to assemble a group of musicians to undertake the task and a 12″ EP, Sixteen Days/Gathering Dust, resulted from the sessions.

Recorded as a B-side for the EP was a cover of Tim Buckley‘s Song to the Siren, performed solely by Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins. Pleased with the results, Watts-Russell decided to make this the A-side of the 7″ single version of the EP.

Cocteau Twins were a Scottish act, and I therefore claiming this version of Song To The Siren as eligible for this series.

mp3 : This Mortal Coil – Song To The Siren

A work of genius. Watts-Russell originally wanted it to be a cappella but ended up including what was a one-take of Guthrie, and I quote ‘leaning against the studio wall bored out of his mind playing these chords’.

Fraser’s vocal was also, quite astonishingly, recorded in one take.

SATURDAY’S SCOTTISH SINGLE (Parts 28-35)

Back on 8 October 2011, I started a series called ‘Saturday’s Scottish Single’.  The aim was to feature one 45 or CD single by a Scottish singer or band with the proviso that the 45 or CD single was in the collection. I had got to Part 60-something and as far as Kid Canaveral when the rug was pulled out from under TVV.

I’ll catch up soon enough by featuring 5 or more at a time from the archives..

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(28) Butcher Boy – Imperial b/w Juicy Fruit : Damaged Goods 7″ (2011)

One of my all time favourite bands.  That I was able to promote one of their gigs in Glasgow in 2011 will always be a memory to treasure.  

This is the thing they’ve ever made available on vinyl.  Still not prepared to make Juicy Fruit available on the blog as the 500 copies of the single have never sold out….

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(29) Captain America – Flame On b/w Buttermilk b/w Indian Summer : Paperhouse Records CD (1992)

Between calling themselves Captain America and ripping off the logo from a chain store, it can’t come as too much of a surprise that all sorts of injunctions soon forced changes and led to this 1992 single being deleted very very quickly. Captain America arose from the ashes of The Vaselines and sound a bit like the way Teenage Fanclub sounded in 1992.  The name was soon changed to Eugenuis which was the nickname some had given to frontman Eugene Kelly

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(30) Champion Doug Veitch  – Margarita b/w Margarita (Mix Mescales)  b/w One Black Night (remix) : Conga Records 12″ single  (1986)

Read more about Champion Doug Veitch here

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(31) Cinematics – Be In The World (demo) : Promo one-sided 7″ bought at a gig when band supported Editors : (2005)

Read more about  Cinematics here

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(32) Clare Grogan – Love Bomb (extended) b/w Love Bomb (dub) ; Love Bomb b/w I Love The Way You Beg : London Records 12 ” and 7″ singles (1987)

The ill-fated solo single that featured a few times over at the old blog…..and always with an apology.  Written and recorded with the help of Davey Henderson (ex- Fire Engines and Win (etc!!) this was a huge flope and led to an LP that was already in the can being shelved.  That more or less was the end of Clare’s musical career – tv and the stage awaited before the 21st Century phenomena of Rewind Festivals and appearances singing the old hits from the Altered Images days.

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(33) Clean George IV – First Blast Of The Trumpet Against The Monstrous Regiment Of Women b/w The Great Highland Crack Epidemic (Black Spring Recordings 2007)

As written back in 2007 when this single was first mentioned on TVV:-

Clean George IV make a kind of racket they like to call ‘pop-rock’.  Originally from Edinburgh they have been together for around a year (in various guises/lineups), have already supported Babyshambles and Clor and count Bloc Party’s singer, Kele Okereke, and drummer, Matt Tong, among their fans, as well as a veritable legion of other indie players…

They comprise of mainman/flagship George McFall and various musicians stolen from other bands. They say they are equal parts Eno, Devo, Erasure and Country (Big).

It was one of the other bloggers who alerted me to this.  Could very well have been Ed over at 17 Seconds.  Saw it in a shop soon after and bought it.

Hugely misogynist title.  Don’t take it literally……..

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(34) Close Lobsters – Going To Heaven To See If It Rains b/w Boys and Girls : Fire Records 7″ (1986)

I used to have a copy of this 7″ single but alas haven’t seen it in the collection for ages. Must have loaned it out and forgot all about it. I’m terrible for doing that with vinyl and books:- mp3 : The Close Lobsters – Going To Heaven To See If It Rains mp3 : The Close Lobsters – Boys and Girls Released in October 1986, this was the debut single. Still sounds great after all these years. Both sides of the single. Please don’t argue

Read more about Close Lobsters here.

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(35) Cocteau Twins –  Bluebeard b/w Three Swept b/w Ice-Pulse b/w Bluebeard (acoustic) : Fontana CD (1994)

Read more about Cocteau Twins here.

2013 Update

It takes about three times as long to pull out and paste pieces from the archives as it does to put a new post together thanks to the the search engine to the archives taking forever.  This particular post has been a brute.