Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Cocteau Twins - Burn This Madhouse Down

The Art Pop movement, if it exists as a "movement," connects  the avant-garde with dream pop, post punk, glam and even the ethereal world of a band like Yes. From The Tubes' theatrics to Steely Dan's sophisticated bi-bop, Art Pop bonds the music of three decades. Unique among the genre were Cocteau Twins.  Although, much of their material was ethereally beautiful indeed, those only familiar with Cocteau Twins later work (by which time they'd evolved into what eventually became known as Dream Pop), may well find them particularly post-punky. This is particularly the case for the Twins' first LP, Garlands. Dark. Ambient. Trippy, Elizabeth Fraser's haunting vocals go off doing their own thing, often venturing into lands of glossolalia and neologism. Although "Blood Bitch," "Wax and Wane" and "But I'm Not" all make an immediate impact on the listener, the LP is a far cry in both content and context from later offerings like Blue Bell Knoll.

Swirling out of Grangemouth in 1979 amidst punk and disco with an ambient sound that, despite Brian Eno et al eluding the populace, here was new territory post-punk hadn't ventured into. It would be three years before Garlands would emerge, but when it did, what a beast it was.

Elizabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie and original bassist Will Heggie formed Cocteau Twins in Scotland in 1979, heavily influenced by Joy Division, The Birthday Party (who they would go on tour with), and Souixsie and the Banshees. Soon after their formation, they recorded and sent two demos to John Peel and Ivo at 4AD Records. The band was contacted immediately by Peel and booked for a recording session. Garlands cracked the top 5 spot on the independent charts, but many critics found it left something desired.  Still, Garlands is blissfully dark, and quaveringly beautiful. Elizabeth's voice is like nothing anyone had ever heard before (or will ever hear again).  Even in its formative stage, Fraser inspired a galvanic response with her vocals. "Hazel," "Dear Heart" and "Blind Dumb Deaf" hint at what was to come. In this early recording Guthrie's guitar is ragged and piercing as Fraser floats her voice in the space surrounding. After first listening to this album, I knew it belonged in my list of all time favorites (although, unfortunately, I didn't discover it until a girlfriend – of course a girlfriend – forced me to, in what was probably '84. Still I immersed myself in the LP's ethereal gloom.

It's interesting to reflect on how the Garlands album marked something of a change in direction for album label 4AD, which until just a year earlier had been producing aggressive post-punk albums like In the Flat Field and Mask by Bauhaus. The Twins' follow-up EP, Lullabies, followed later that year, more along those post punk grinds.

Cocteau Twins in their earlier years were quite prolific, swiftly rolling out Head Over Heels (4AD, 1983), Sunburst and Snowblind (4AD, 1983), the Peppermint Pig EP (4AD, 1983 - which the band admitted was “shit…a bad mixture, bad song, bad producer, bad band”), Treasure (4AD, 1984) and the immaculate Aikea-Guinea EP (4AD, 1985), as well as a number of singles. For those who just wanted to dip their toes rather than dive right in, much of the best from this early period can be sampled on the extremely fine compilation The Pink Opaque (4AD, 1985). For each, the combination of thick, spacey, unreachable vocals with heavily distorted guitars can transport one to some kind of musical heaven. Here is the realm of the dreamy, distant and emotional varites of pop music. Dream Pop has been something of an under-appreciated genre for a majority of its existence. Distant, extremely emotional and somewhat vague, it sounds more like a needy girlfriend than something you'd want to spend time listening to (oh, did I let on too much?). But here is a genre that deserves consideration. Some music catches you right away, but these tunes tend to grow slowly into something unexpected, a soundtrack of ethereal days.

Alongside fellow 4AD mates, Dead Can Dance, Cocteau Twins would become almost totally responsible for forming the roots of a Goth spin-off genre at times referred to as Ethereal Wave, elevator music for the soul. This writer's go to CT EP is Love's Easy Tears, with the over the top beautiful "Those Eyes, That Mouth," which is indulgent enough that you will love it or despise it; there is no in-between. ALL the sounds are CRANKED up here; guitars crush into each other, vocals soar, sounds flood one's senses. I must admit, I have a hard time being at all critical of this because it touches me on such a personal level. I've always longed for more vocals like these, soaked in Romanticism, evoking a myriad of gushing description. Like Peter Gabriel's "Humdrum," "TE, TM" haunts my dreams.

I should stop here, but back to the needy gf and "Ice-Blink Luck" from Heaven or Las Vegas (4AD, 1990), which continues to preoccupy alternative dance floors. (That in mind, we'll close with the beauty of it and the LP itself, fitting in so well with foam and ecstasy). On a New England excursion in the summer of '90, the ngf (needy girlfriend) listened to this track a hundred times in a row. Those ngf/nbf tracks seem to stay with us the longest (another was in '84 in Big Bear, California when my tngf (teen ngf) played "Boys Don't Cry" and only "Boys Don't Cry" for the entire drive into the mountains). I still listen to these tracks with kindness, a bit of regret and a few "thank Gods." From "Cherry-Coloured Funk" to "Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer's Fires," HOLV presents the Twins' most down-to-Earth performances in an odd mix of surreal realism. After all, "You're the macho cherry-coal/ That will burn this whole madhouse down./ And I'll throw open like a walnut safe/ More like a love that's a bottle of exquisite stuff, yes."