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Over the Wall – #4

May 12, 2009

This week, a group that, in spite of being called their own worst enemy, went on to be one of the most influential of the ’80s and ’90s.

Edition #4 – Perhaps Some other Aeon: Cocteau Twins.

The Cocteau Twins remain exemplary in many ways. They were a group of inexperienced young musicians who went on to significantly define the aesthetics of an era, a label, and entire genres that came later. They were a group that avoided the typical industry routes for most of their career, and were always quite critical of their own works. They were uncomfortable with the attention their music brought them, but were nonetheless compelled to keep making it, and were, above all else, a group that sounded like no other.

Robin Guthrie, Elizabeth Fraser and Will Heggie were just teenagers when they began the Cocteau Twins at the end of the seventies in Grangemouth, Scotland. Taking influence from groups like The Birthday Party, Joy Division, PiL, et al., they crafted a sound that reflected different facets of the post-punk landscape, with the gothic, the avant, the electronic, and the poetic all mixed in. By 1982 they had caught the attention of Ivo Watts-Russell at the then-still-developing 4AD Records, who got them into the studio and released their first record, Garlands, that same year. Pretty much everything the group would do throughout the rest of the eighties is found, in primary form, on Garlands, but it is a darker, more minimal-sounding record than the ones that followed it. The early sound is heavy and dirge-like, and was an instant success. The group’s formula was fairly simple, but each element was done in such a way as to make the whole entirely unique, especially Elizabeth Fraser’s vocals. Often regarded as the most captivating element of the group, her unusual vocal style and lyrics were an instant fascination that nobody’s ever really figured out. In the context of Garlands, her style is possibly at its most accessible, but it was already becoming more obscure by the time the Lullabies EP was released, just a few months later.

The sound of the band changed a bit when Will Heggie left, following the release of the Peppermint Pig EP, a record which, for the first and only time in their career, did not feature the band’s involvement in the production process (it was done by Alan Rankine of the cult Scottish group The Associates). The record, which was a bit more dancier and new-wavier than their previous works, never quite sat right with the band. Nevertheless, they were gaining popularity steadily, and were regarded as one of the most exciting groups of the time. After Heggie’s departure (he would go on to join the often-overlooked group Lowlife in 1985), Guthrie and Fraser recorded their next releases on their own. Head Over Heels, the adventurous second LP, and Sunburst and Snowblind, a companion EP, gave the first expressions to what would become the hallmark Cocteau Twins sound.

It was around this same time that Fraser and Guthrie received significant attention for their contributions to Ivo Watts-Russell’s This Mortal Coil project (essentially a group of musicians from the 4AD roster doing collaborations and covers). This Mortal Coil’s first record It’ll End in Tears and the Cocteau Twins’ 1983 records did much to establish the reverb-heavy, deeply melodic, so-called ‘4AD sound’ the label has long been known for. It’ll End in Tears featured Guthrie and Fraser doing a haunting version of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren,” which, to their dismay, got them more recognition than any of their own records had.

The next Cocteau Twins record was The Spangle Maker EP, in 1984, which showcased new bassist Simon Raymonde’s involvement with the group. The sound was expanded not only in terms of the playing, but given that Raymonde was also a proficient studio technician, there were new depths to the production as well, and by the time Treasure, their next full-length, came out in 1984, the fresh lineup had found new levels of sound and success. Treasure was quite lavish-sounding, and was the most internationally successful record the band had put out up to that point, although, interestingly enough, it was also the most lyrically incomprehensible record they had done. The band were quite active in the mid eighties, and the next few records would continue pushing the boundaries of what they were doing. The EPs Aikea-Guinea, Tiny Dynamite, and Echoes in a Shallow Bay, all came out in 1985, and delved further into ethereal dreamscape. That same year the group signed a distribution deal for North America. Up until then, they had had no serious distribution on this side of the Atlantic, but had become very popular on college radio. A compilation of songs taken from their releases between ’82 and ’85, The Pink Opaque, was released as a formal introduction to the North American market.

Two more LPs followed in 1986: the collaboration with Harold Budd, The Moon and the Melodies, not credited to the Cocteau Twins, as such, and Victorialand, the next proper Cocteaus album, done without Raymonde, who was working on the second This Mortal Coil record at the time. Both of these records continued on from the 1985 EPs and ventured even further into ambient territory, but were followed by the Love’s Easy Tears EP, which was a return to their familiar drum machine/guitar wall sound. The last release of this prolific period in their career, a video for the song “Crushed,” foreshadowed the look and sound of some threads of ’90s pop that were still a few years off.

Emerging again after a break in 1988, with their own studio and a major label record deal, the band marked a new phase of their career. It is important to keep in mind that they had been an independent band since 1982, and had managed a tremendous amount of success basically on the strength of their releases alone. Though they were still technically signed to 4AD, the distribution of 1988’s Blue Bell Knoll was handled by Colombia. The new revenue the major label deal brought them was apparent in the extensive, polished production of both the album and videos made for it, but the band ended up not liking the record. For the next two years, they spent time away. Fraser and Guthrie had a child, as did Raymonde, who was also producing a number of younger bands (Lush, Chapterhouse, et al.) that were coming up in the wake of the Cocteau Twins as principal players in a new genre: shoegaze. The Cocteau Twins were also composing material at this time for what would be perhaps their most popular album.

Released in 1990, and a favourite to many, Heaven or Las Vegas was one of the most commercially successful records the band had. It also set them firmly within the pop sounds of the new decade. Sounds, which, in some cases, owed much to their records in the mid eighties. Heaven or Las Vegas also marks the end of the group’s involvement with 4AD and, for some, the end of their best period. After touring around on the record, personal problems kept the band from activity for another couple of years and spelled out the eventual end. Guthrie had long been deep into drugs and alcohol, and had to spend time cleaning up, while the long-time relationship between he and Fraser was failing as well, and Raymonde was tired of being caught up in the turmoil. All of this came to a head, of course, at the height of their success. By the time they put out Four Calendar Café in 1993, they’d changed both as a band, and as people, and the old Cocteau Twins were gone. Four Calendar Café divided audiences, with some thinking it was too much of a commercial pop album, and others thinking it was further evolution, on par with Head Over Heels in terms of range. Both were right, in their own way. The band had changed a great deal and this record ended up being not only a document of those changes, but their best-selling album as well. Not surprising, given the record’s unprecedented musical and lyrical accessibility.

For the final act, the Cocteaus put out a pair of EPs, Twinlights and Otherness (mostly instrumental re-workings of older songs), and an LP, Milk and Kisses, in 1996. In some ways, they were a different band by this point, but in some ways, they’d always been the same. What made them so good was always the same, right up to this, their final record. Milk and Kisses wasn’t intended to be their final record, and they apparently started work on another, but internal tensions brought their run to an end in 1997.

In the years following, a number of collections of Cocteau Twins material have been put out, and the members have all gone on to other things. Raymonde is a producer and solo artist, still working with Guthrie (who is also releasing solo albums) in their Bella Union record label, and Fraser is a solo act as well, having primarily contributed guest vocals to projects, including, probably most famously (though often unrecognised), some of the singing in the Lord of the Rings films.

Being as influential as they were in terms of dream-pop, post-rock, shoegaze, independent music in the ’80s, and the post-punk period itself, it’s a given that one will run into the Cocteau Twins at some point along the line. Their extensive discography can be a bit off-putting at times, but it covers a nearly twenty-year career in which they established themselves as real innovators in pop music.

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