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"Peep hole, peach blow, Pandora, Pompadour, pale leaf, pink sweet, Persephone"

Class C

Main Category: Mood Music
Also applicable: Art Rock, Lush Pop, Avantgarde
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Cocteau Twins fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Cocteau Twins fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Ever so often, in a review of an album or a live show I hear some ecstatic admirer - sometimes including myself - refer to the actual music as 'magic' and the actual performer(s) as 'magicians'. Now, truth be told, it's hardly any less banal to abuse this word as it is to abuse the word 'genius', because, let's face the boring scientific truth, music is not magic, unless you make yourself believe it is. However, from time to time you get lucky to encounter an artist whose actual goal, whose primary goal is to bridge the gap between music and magic; an artist who doesn't just strive to produce something extravagantly unusual or unusually extravagant, but who actually reaches into the Supernatural and does this intentionally and deliberately.

All this is to say that the Cocteau Twins, in their prime, were a pair of "Magicians" if there ever was one. Guitarist Robin Guthrie, building upon the legacy of classical music, folk music, and New Wave, has created an inimitable, almost unimaginable way of playing his instrument and creating radically new sound textures. And vocalist Elisabeth Frazer, building upon the legacy of pretty much every singing technique there was, has created an inimitable, almost unimaginable way of producing vocal sounds that could be incomprehensible, undiscernible, and yet angelically beautiful at the same time. Without any doubt, this collaboration produced some of the, if not the, most original and individual music of the Eighties, and at the same time it was music that did not require active intellectual pre-preparation on the part of the listener. It was revolutionary and avantgarde, and at the same time it never challenged the deeply traditional laws of perception. It influenced miriads of artists to come, and yet nobody has really ever come close to recapturing the unique atmosphere of albums like Treasure or Blue Bell Knoll - meaning that the music was touching and accessible enough to inspire people to follow that road, yet its major secrets remained uncaptured and unsolved.

The Twins have always been associated with little oddities, starting with the fact that they were never really "twins", neither in the literal sense nor even in the figurative one; there has almost always (except for the brief period in which Head Over Heels was recorded) been a third member in the 'band', responsible for bass guitar and some of the composing and producing, first Will Heggie and then, for the most part of the band's existence, Simon Raymonde. They hailed from Scotland, which explains the occasional Celtic strand in their music, but their "songs" were decidedly cosmopolitan, if not interplanetary - although even the word "interplanetary" seems at odds with the music, because the Twins never really belonged to the "space rock" department. They were magicians, not Martians, unless, of course, this happens to be the same thing, which has not been proven yet.

Probably the most famous thing about the Cocteau Twins is Liz Fraser's classic singing style, in which the overall phonic picture is much more important than the lyrical content; the latter can never be guessed by ear and makes little more sense when witnessed on paper. It is interesting to note, though, that however incomprehensible her lyrics were, she always sang something instead of just following Clare Tory's example on Pink Floyd's 'Great Gig In The Sky', and you could always guess of just how high importance these particular words were to the song. Individually, they probably weren't, but this partial invention of a new language was crucial to the overall sense of otherworldliness of the Twins. Add to this that little bits of operatic singing could alternate with little bits of almost punkish yelling and little bits of folk yodelling could alternate with little bits of jazzy crooning, and all the particular bits constituted distinct emotional hooks, and you get a combination of unimaginably hard work with tremendous spiritual depth. (Unless, of course, you prefer to attribute this combination to the likes of Liz Phair instead, in which case let me live on my planet).

Not being a technical expert, I can't really find the proper words to characterize Guthrie's playing style. Much of it was, of course, due to his technophilia - even when the music was deliberately stripped down (as on Victorialand), the guitars were still being run through gadgets which gave them extra volume and majesty. He is an accomplished and professional player, rarely relying on finger-flashing, preferring to concentrate on unusual phrasing and polyphony. When it comes to "apples" - hooks - Guthrie usually leaves these to Liz, concentrating on finding just the right backing for her passages. Most of the time he's gentle, but if there is a need to rock out, he can easily assume the function of Robert Fripp's minor brother.

The Twins' one fatal, but unavoidable flaw - if this can be called a flaw at all - is one-sidedness. They truly and honestly stuck with the same type of music for fourteen years, although, in their defense, most of that time they spent trying to find as much variation within that one category as possible. Their first two albums were partially successful, but still somewhat incomplete attempts to find perfection. Then, once that perfection had been found on 1984's Treasure, they cut the volume and the grandeur in favour of subtlety on 1986's Victorialand; roared back into existence with the ultra-complex, polyphonic Blue Bell Knoll in 1988; settled into a knowledgeable, professional, sagacious, but not all that exciting groove with Heaven Or Las Vegas in 1990; and started to really demonstrate the shortcomings of being too formulaic with their last two albums before finally disbanding. Chances are if you're a fan of the band, you'll love all of their output, then; but if you're after diversity and perfection, some of it is bound to disappoint you, as it disappointed me. Then again, that is a reasonable price for being experimental and artsy.

And commercially oriented, I should add, because what with all their modesty, style, and grace, the Twins never shied commercial success, releasing hit singles and heavily rotated musical videos a-plenty. This explains a little bit of scepticism towards the band when it comes to elitist tastes - for some people Frazer, Guthrie, and Raymonde were too hit-oriented - but as far as I see it, for almost an entire decade the Twins had been demonstrating a perfect balance between unique artistic vision and accessibility. I would almost be happy to honour them with an overall rating of 4 (actually, the "3.4" below comes pretty close), had their music been able to overcome certain limitations. But then again, some bands are born for a 4 and some are born for a 3, and that doesn't necessarily mean that the latter are worse than the former, if you know what I mean. So cheers for the Twins.



Year Of Release: 1982

Record rating = 8
Overall rating = 11

Good times are coming when the apprentice beats the masters with his first effort.

Best song: GARLANDS

Track listing: 1) Blood Bitch; 2) Wax And Wane; 3) But I'm Not; 4) Blind Dumb Deaf; 5) Shallow Then Halo; 6) The Hollo Men; 7) Garlands; 8) Grail Overfloweth.

A very, very solid debut, which, believe it or not, actually hits you the most after taking in some of the Twins' "classic period" output rather than when you're trying to digest them in chronological order. But upon its release in 1982 it certainly was no amazing eye-opener. Now let's see here... there is already a lot in the way of the actual individually-Twin style, but upon my first listen, I was very sceptical about it because it seemed to sound exactly like Siouxsie & The Banshees, although as the listening progressed, I found out this was not exactly so. Oh sure, Garlands displays a tremendous Siouxsie influence, as well as Joy Division and the Cure overtones and, well, you know, all that gothic/depressed/minor minor stuff. But this is still different music already.

Imagine this. A drum machine - not a very complex or imaginative one, playing jazzy or New Wavey or proto-drum'n'bass rhythms like your trusty dog companion. A bass player (Will Heggie) that's actually pretty good; not John Entwistle or anything, but he plays his instrument well, usually choosing a fast and complex riff and sticking to it from beginning to end and occasionally adding fuzz or phasing to the guitar. In fact, this is the most "bass-heavy" album these guys ever recorded, and this is what makes it so much darker and Cure-like. A guitar player (Robin Guthrie) who seems bent upon making his guitar sound like a synthesizer in that he's not actually playing audible discernible melodies, but rather a series of fast fast fast trills where the notes totally merge together so that if you don't pay attention you can actually mistake the guitar for a whacky out-of-tune Polymoog. And a Goth-intonation-based female vocalist - Elizabeth Fraser - who blurts out disconnected, meaningless spurts of lyrics and revels in dubious vocal gymnastics (including drawing out all the wrong syllables, raising and lowering the voice in the most unpredictable places, and bleating where possible).

Imagine all this, and you're all set. And this is a combination you probably never really had before. The lack of a live drummer, the unusual treatment of the guitar (well - relatively unusual, since you could already see all these effects in the works of Bob Fripp, for instance, except that Fripp never based an entire album on such a style), and the absurdist schizophrenic lyrical delivery all combine to make Garlands sound similar to a lot of things, but equal to nothing else. What's preventing it from being a masterpiece then?

Because there is no difference between songs at all. ALL the eight tracks on here are delivered in exactly the same style, which makes the level of diversity on about the same level as any given AC/DC album and even worse, because AC/DC at least changed their tempos sometimes; with the Twins, I just can't really understand when a particular track has ended and a new one has begun. Besides, AC/DC at least used different riffs, and here, what with Guthrie's tactics of totally neutralizing any note sequences, you can't tell one melody from another because there's no "melodies" in the basic understanding of the term. There's atmosphere, there are these massive "washes" and "waves" of sound, but don't even think about humming this stuff.

That said, it's easy to forgive these guys and eventually get used to this paradigm. After all, I would still rather sit through Garlands than through Seventeen Seconds, for the simple reason that Liz Fraser's crazy babbling is just so much more enthralling than Robert Smith's incessant - and for the most part, predictable - whining. From the very start, Fraser is the anchor that binds you to the Twins' music and holds you steady even when you're ready to get lost in Guthrie's chaotic sonic jungle. When it doesn't happen ('Blind Dumb Deaf'), the results are almost disastrous: on that track, Fraser's vocals are almost catastrophically unfocused and "bland" (according to her own standards), leaving you to concentrate on the endless dzhing-dzhang-dzhing-dzhang guitar see-saw of Guthrie, which personally drives me mad (metaphorically speaking, of course) in a matter of one or two minutes.

But when she's good, she's good. And she's really good on the title track, a dark-angel-sort-of dirge where, for once, Liz announces something that makes poetic sense ('I could die in a rosary, die in a rosary') and presages quite a bit of the classic Dead Can Dance image. Or check out her bleating out the lines 'the devil might steady we wax and wane' on 'Wax And Wane' - a track which will probably leave no one unmoved even if everybody will have a hard time trying to understand which part of your emotional centers actually was moved in the first place. Is this 'dark beauty' or is this 'transcendental beauty'? Is this just an original twist on the Cure or is this, I dunno, Middle-earth level music?

Of course, to be truly Middle-earth level music, this is still a bit too grounded in our mundane (and/or spiritual) realities. Even the "lyrics" deal a bit too much with God, devil, and death to be shaken free of Cure/Siouxsie influences ('Shallow Then Halo', 'Grail Overfloweth'), ungrammatical as they occasionally are, and even the album cover still says "This is Goth" to the casual record buyer. No, this is not Goth. This is something different. I can hardly imagine leather-clad girls soaked in eyeliner slit their world-weary wrists to the mysterious sounds of 'The Hollo Men' - that would at least require Guthrie's guitar to be more prominent in the mix and wailing in a higher pitch. (When it actually does start wailing in a higher pitch at 3:15 into the song, though, it brings to mind the astral period of Pink Floyd rather than anything Joy Division-related).

The truth is, the Cocteau Twins would get better and much more idiosyncratic in the future - but there certainly is something to be said for a "formative" debut record which already shows more promise and brings out more saliva than the primary influences they were building upon. In particular, every new listen brings out some curious new twist in Guthrie's playing, which outmatches - by far - just about anything the first "wave" of post-punkers tried to create in between 1978 and 1982 in terms of sonic texture. A new age is upon us. (Not to be confused with "New Age is upon us" - Cocteau Twins are not New Age by any means. They're... they're just the Twins).



Year Of Release: 1983

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

The Heavenly Jungle of Multi-Textured Sonic Bliss.


Track listing: 1) When Mama Was Moth; 2) Five Ten Fiftyfold; 3) Sugar Hiccup; 4) In Our Angelhood; 5) Glass Candle Grenades; 6) In The Gold Dust Rush; 7) The Tinderbox (Of A Heart); 8) Multifoiled; 9) My Love Paramour; 10) Musette And Drums.

This time around they're certainly twins, with Heggie out of the picture and Fraser and Guthrie pulling all the stops - him the instrumental genius, she the vocal culprit. Kinda like the Eurythmics, I guess, only in a seriously different field. Head Over Heels still suffers from the same problem that tortured the band's debut, though: everything sounds the same. Well, not as much "the same", to be sure, because the mood scope is a little bit broadened now, with some songs actually falling into the 'optimistic' camp, I guess. But you gotta understand, the 'optimistic/pessimistic' scale is not really that easily applicable to the Cocteau Twins. If you ask me, I'll say that they are trying to communicate certain emotions, but I'll be goddamned if I know what these emotions are. All those guitar arrangements sound as if they were created in the sixth dimension or something, with an aesthetics that's superficially similar to the one used by us mere mortals, in that the notes can actually be transcribed, but whose system of "note sequence <==> a sp. emotion" correspondences is totally reversed.

In other words, on a basic level I'd say that 'Sugar Hiccup' is a pretty uplifting song, while 'Five Ten Fiftyfold' is staggeringly depressive. But for all I know, it might be vice versa. I have absolutely no clue what that lady is willing to communicate - she sounds as if her very life and spirit depended on that gibberish, so she probably must be meaning something, even if that something is impossible to directly derive from the words. I have absolutely no clue as to what these ethereal guitar atmospheres are supposed to invoke. I think 'sixth dimension' is a good definition here (trite in most cases, but perfectly applicable to this particular type of music): the Twins are trying to construct an entirely new kind of texture that's hard to judge by any ordinary standard, and I gotta say they succeed at that where others had essentially failed (like Yes, who have at their best managed to achieve gorgeousness and power at the same time, but never really managed to break through the veils of commonly accepted aesthetics - not that they really tried) or only achieved, uhmm, half-hearted success (like Magma, who came very very close at times, but at other times relied too heavily on direct classical and jazz influences to sound as much different as they really wanted to).

So a hooray for the Twins on this - aptly titled - album, but let's also admit that, sixth dimension or not, that doesn't prevent a significant portion of the album from being boring. Just plain boring. The Twins might be disguised aliens from Mars for all I know, but then there's this little bacterium called 'monotonousness' that can wreak havoc even on the aliens, you know. The first four tracks are all ace, especially coming right off the heels of Garlands. The petty drum machines are replaced by big booming drum machines. Synthesizers have been added and refined occasionally. Since Heggie is out, the album is much less bass heavy, but that's convenient because it moves the band even further away from the basic rock band format. There's even a smart use of horns on certain tracks - so that in places, the actual atmospheres remind me of Hawkwind, only without the bluesy rhythmics and the heaviness. That doesn't happen regularly though.

'When Mama Was Moth' isn't particularly memorable, but it does open the record with a big bang; the cannonball drum machines ensure that yes, they have really progressed since the last time, and the sound is even deeper so that you can't see to the bottom of it. I did say the album wasn't too bass-heavy, but no rule without an exception: 'Five Ten Fiftyfold' has one of the most monstruous, powerful basslines on an 'experimental' record I've ever witnessed. I'm not sure if it's actual bass guitar I hear or if it's a synthesized effect, but in any case that constant rising ultra-heavy line gives me the creeps every time in the best Wagnerian traditions; and Elizabeth's operatic wailing of the song title, perfectly synchronized with the horns and synths, is one of the album's spiritual high points. Why? Shoot me if I know, because if I know, I must be an alien just like them, I'm probably dangerous.

Then there's 'Sugar Hiccup'. You try singing the line 'sugar hiccup or she reels' (pronounced "sugar hiccup or cereals") in such a way that people would consider it beautiful. You succeed, and you get shot as well. Like I already said, I see this as sort of an uplifting song, but maybe these guys on Mars see it differently. I sure view 'In Our Angelhood' as fast and aggressive, though, and doubt the Martians would consider it otherwise. It's also the closest they arrive on here to emulating Siouxsie & The Banshees, as it's a fast song with a prominent bassline (again) and jagged sarcastic vocals, except that the Banshees never put that many overdubs on their finished product. Great song. Great bass, great vocals that slice through the air like nothing else. Ahh.

Try as I might, though, I just can't get that much excited by the remaining six tracks. Maybe it's because by the end of the fourth track I'm already taking this from a Martian's perspective for the bland pile of generic Martian street muzak it is. So whose fault is it that these two were the ones to get the lucky ticket to have come down from Mars? Not mine by any means. Seriously now, after 'In Our Angelhood' my attention really gets blurred - maybe the remaining songs are just way too atmospheric, without any solid hooks to them; and only the last song, 'Musette And Drums', gets that attention back due to a phenomenal guitar solo that, again, transcends all the usual things I can say about a guitar solo. Why is that the only guitar solo on the entire album that actually deserves any merit is beyond me; surely, if Guthrie could play an instrumental passage of such power once, he could have done it more than once, and saved something like 'Glass Candle Grenades' from mediocrity. But maybe he didn't want to look self-indulgent. It's one thing if you invent the sixth dimension, and another thing if you decide to play a guitar solo, you know. That's, like, pretentious.

Speaking of pretentious, the only track on here that really has something to do with classifiable musical genres is the half-blues, half-cabaret 'Multifoiled' - at least, that's what it smells of once you've stripped off the usual Martian arrangements. That doesn't mean anything, though, and on this meaningless note I'm ready to close the review. And yeah, I know Mars is really too close to Earth to be equalled with 'sixth dimension', but what do I know, my sci-fi leaves a lot to be desired.

PS. As far as the rating is concerned, I really wanted to make it an 11, but whaddaya know, I just love love love that sound so much I'm ready to overlook the inconsistencies. You gotta realize - nothing really sounded even remotely like this, not ever before. That deserves recognition. At worst you can just revel in the depth and half-dark-half-light of it without paying attention to the melody.



Year Of Release: 1984

Record rating = 10
Overall rating = 13

Beyond measure.

Best song: LORELEI

Track listing: 1) Ivo; 2) Lorelei; 3) Beatrix; 4) Persephone; 5) Pandora; 6) Amelia; 7) Aloysius; 8) Cicely; 9) Otterley; 10) Donimo.

Paper chase is on, these are on my speed; for he warbled, bought arachnophobe on the tiara, by the gin's rack, paper chase is on, these are on my space.

Don't worry, it's not a case of acute dyslexia on my part (I'll manage to stick around for a little while yet, whether that please the reader or not), it's just a lyrical quotation from 'Persephone', track four on the upcoming Cocteau Twins album. If I were an irate rhinoceros-skinned foam-dribbling fan like the guy that once remarked to my reviewing colleague John McFerrin that you can't review Yes in formal words and the only approximate way to do this is to put up a Roger Dean album cover and let the viewer finish the rest in his own mind, I would probably say that there's no way you can review these Cocteau Twins and the only approximate way to do that is to put up Liz Fraser's lyrics. And the good Lord knows I'm not the only one suffering from this problem - back in the Eighties, from what I've read, people were driven to all kinds of extremities, some comparing this music directly to the voice of God, others writing intentional hogwash a la "this sounds like a scorpion cocktail". It's good enough to know that no musical journalist committed suicide over the thing.

Anyway, I'm not really gonna try to express the emotional state that should be induced by this music. It's a futile task, and besides, I've already strung myself out in the preceding review. I'll just make this into a boring, stagnant experience and try to write in what way this album differs from its predecessor and try to single out what I consider to be the best hooks (and yes, it is possible to discuss the Twins even at their weirdest in the good old stale 'hook' category - that actually happens to be one of the finest things about this kind of music. It sticks with you, unlike a whole pile of bland atmospheric wishy-washing I could mention. And it leaves some real good memories. Well, time to close the parentheses, I guess). And if everything that follows will seem dry and too 'scientific' or 'mathematical' or 'calculated' or 'soulless' to you, you deep feeling artistic soul you, then get this: I am tremendously moved by this music, except when it becomes boring.

The Twins record this album as a trio again, with an added bass player, but it's not like there's a lot of audible bass here. Sonically, I'd say this is Liz Fraser's show all the way through: in fact, occasionally I miss some of Robin's guitar heroics, as they appear pushed down in the mix or not present at all. There's a lot of different atmospheres, though, from the heavenly-happy to the dark and disturbing to some that lie in between; I don't agree with those that call Treasure a very diverse album - a truly diverse album demands occasional "shifts of personality", which never happens on here - but they certainly explore a lot of subjects no matter what I have to say. From celestial joy to quiet expression of religious feeling to hymns of madness and desperation, everything's up here, only filtered through the same kind of musical philosophy sieve. Instrumentally, there's a lot of strummed acoustic rhythms and soaring synths; the drum machines occasionally draw complaints from listeners but they seem okay to me, certainly better than your average generic whack-thump of the prototypic synth-pop song.

Fraser is still the main star, though. It's been said she was listening to a lot of Billie Holliday and Edith Piaf back then, and it shows, because she's exploring her range more than ever before, alternating tense-and-nasty with soft-and-sweet like changing a pair of gloves; and the album's also really heavy on vocal overdubs, so that sometimes you have up to three Liz Frasers singing together, say, two in 'angelic' tones and one in a 'rougher' tone, which certainly adds to the songs' otherworldly flavor. No wonder the critics just didn't know what to think of this stuff.

The hooks? Here they are. 'Near our rito, peep peep hole' in 'Ivo' (that's what the lyrics I've found claim to say - for all I know, it could have been 'hey burrito, pee pee in hole' or whatever you propose yourself, depending on your personal degree of sickness). 'Ivo', by the way, is an apparent reference to producer Ivo Watts-Russell of 4AD, one of the band's creative pillars of inspiration; and the song itself is pretty uplifting and features a totally mad Robin solo at the end, geez, how does that guy get that sound? The sexy ultra-high vocal tone of 'kick his chair, kick his pride' in the upbeat 'Lorelei' - my personal favourite on the album, maybe due to these insanely cheerful "Elvish Martial Rhythms" that push the song forward. The painfully extended, technically perfect 'hey-ee-aaaayeee-aaaaayeee-aaaaayyeee-ay the chances I must waste' chant in 'Persephone'. Just about every single line in the acoustic-driven dirge-like 'Amelia'. The weirdly blurted out pseudo-Japanese stuff in 'Aloysius' (actually, when the band went on their first Japan tour, people were coming up to Liz backstage and thanking her for translating the band's lyrics into Japanese! The poor girl felt very embarrassed). The merry-go-round of 'Donimo' that closes the album, where the lyrics entirely go off the deep edge as Liz starts singing gibberish in something she invented herself.

And others, too. You might have noticed all the songs are named with personal names, most of them (but not all) stemming from Greek mythology; this was an intentional put-on from the band, because, of course, neither the songs nor the music nor the 'concept' of the album, if there ever was one, has nothing to do with Greek mythology, but hey, it's always nice to make musical critics look like total dumbasses, isn't it? And being the total dumbass that I am, I, of course, cannot close this review without upholding my (totally undeserved, but that's the way it goes) reputation of The Real Nasty Guy, so I just have to mention the album's not totally perfect - from time to time, you get a relatively fillerish piece, like, for instance, the oh-so-passive 'Otterley' where there's hardly any singing going on (mostly whispering) and the atmosphere is a bit too New Age-y for my tastes. Don't get me wrong, it's decent, but you don't really need to be a Cocteau Twin here; you could just as well be Enya, or Enya's great granddaughter coasting on Enya's name and fame.

Now that the lone complaint has been voiced, I also wish to quickly compensate for it by singling out 'Pandora' as the greatest ode to the "F" sound (not to be confused with the "F" word!) ever written by anybody. A good thing, too, because oh so few sonically-minded people really care about consonants (even the Monkees' 'Peter Percival Patterson's Pet Pig Porky' is not much of a song, besides, it's hardly an original approach). All they care about are the vowels, oh naive simpletons. Take a good listen to 'Pandora', though, and you'll see just how much they are mistaken.:)



Year Of Release: 1986

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

Now, supposedly this is elfish folk music before the fairy folk invented the drum machine.

Best song: WHALES TAILS, I guess, but it's really just one big trip.

Track listing: 1) Lazy Calm; 2) Fluffy Tufts; 3) Throughout The Dark Months Of April And May; 4) Whales Tails; 5) Oomingmak; 6) Little Spacey; 7) Feet-like Fins; 8) How To Bring A Blush To The Snow; 9) The Thinner The Air.

Working as a total duo again. And Victorialand is easily the 'lightest' album ever from these guys. Just Liz and Mr Guthrie, she the Lady of Mispronounced Lexemes, he the Master of 3-D Sonic Phasing. To the point and short: just over thirty minutes of what, in my book, constitutes "musical magic" as concocted by actual wizards in pointed hats with self-playing harps rather than in any metaphorical sense. Because no matter how much I try to convince myself that two actual human beings sat down in the studio and recorded all of this stuff according to strictly understandable modern technologies, the basic feeling is still always the same. It's fuckin' Rivendell all over again. The real fuckin' Rivendell. Not the Mark Stonehenge Rivendell. Which is why I don't really approve of the album title - "" is okay, but "Victoria"? Neither England nor Australia have anything to do with this creation.

It's a good thing, actually, that Victorialand is so short. Were it longer, I'd probably be forced to start pulling the songs apart from each other or, God forbid, just lack the strength to sit through all of it from beginning to end. At just over thirty minutes, though, it feels like a long, multi-part, yet totally coherent and monolithic (unlike, say, Thick As A Brick) oratorio. The level of sound, apart from the ultra-quiet introduction, is pretty much always the same, the arrangements are similar, and the induced states of mind, although often different from each other, still lie within a very close emotional range, closer, in fact, than on Treasure, which was more experimental in that sense. But who cares? It doesn't ascend to the level of transcendent grandiosity, and it hardly aspires to. It's a mood piece, and one of the best there is. In a certain sense, it's the Pet Sounds of the Eighties, although at the same time more simple and less accessible than the Beach Boys' masterpiece.

Don't interpret my words, though, as if meaning that there are no discernible melodies on the album - that it's all about the atmosphere. No sir, the Twins are not that negligent for you. Each and every one of these compositions employs both Guthrie's guitar skills and Fraser's tender vocal gurglings to maximum effect, making you pay attention provided you've turned the level knobs to the maximum. Sure, the three minute introduction to 'Lazy Calm', opening the album, might implant a bit of creepy suspicion that the whole experience might turn out to be that mushy - that the Twins have gone all ambient on our asses and from now on we're doomed to be hearing Guthrie's impersonation of Brian Eno for the rest of our lives. But even the "ambient" part is relieved by those distant saxophone notes, announcing a new dawn for humankind or something like that, and when the main body of the song finally comes in, all suspicions are laid to rest. And as Liz gently coos out the half-folksy, half-operatic refrain, it's hard to get rid of the thought that 'Lazy Calm' is simply the perfect title for this kind of song.

Liz hasn't actually changed much. And if she did, it's only for the "worse" (note the quotes): her words are even less discernible than before, in fact, I'm pretty sure that this time around at least half of the songs just don't have any relation to the English language whatsoever. Not that it's a big loss, right? But Guthrie's playing is definitely different, at least, in parts. For one thing, it seems to be much more classically oriented than it used to be. Listen to something like 'Little Spacey' and tell me it couldn't have, with a few minor rearrangements, been effectively used at the annual Viennese ball; and there are other examples. That's just a clumsy attempt at formalizing, though - and it's possible that I'm seeing things as well and the only reason it seems different to me is that there are no overwhelmingly loud drum machines and no bass guitars to hide Robin's tricks from me.

As before, most of the songs can be easily placed into the "lighter" and "darker" camps. My favourites are universally in the 'darker' camp (which is odd, considering I'm hardly a 'dark' person at heart - but I guess when it comes to fairy-tale music, I get more fascinated by its 'dark' side than by the 'sweet' elements. Well, doesn't everybody?), and these would include the oddly, I would say, anachronistically titled 'Throughout The Dark Months Of April And May', a melancholy-infested dirgey composition driven by a strange, 'limp' acoustic rhythm ("limp" because it gives the sonic impression of a tired old man slowly dragging his mutilated leg along the road) and populated by two different Liz Frasers, one high-pitched and "religiously naive", the other one much darker and more sneering. Even better is 'Whales Tails', all built on stops-and-starts instead of a steady rhythm and donminated by a totally incredible, totally Martian vocal melody. (Well, to be perfectly frank, it betrays traces of Italian pop influences to me, but one doesn't necessarily exclude the other). And hardly worse is the magnificently named 'How To Bring A Blush To The Snow' (indeed), where Guthrie takes the lead and has Liz beat by coming up with a few instrumental tricks that will dazzle your soul. Minimalistic and heart-wrenching.

Out of the "happier" songs, I could single out (even if I hate doing this - singling out, I mean) 'Fluffy Tufts' (another great riff out there), the already mentioned slow-waltzing 'Little Spacey', and the cutesy little 'Oomingmak' which keeps giving the impression of quickly quickly hurrying in some unidentified direction (Guthrie plays the chords pretty quickly) but, as it turns out, actually just keeps running on the spot while Liz gives it her all with another superb operatic delivery (in the "chorus" - in the verses, she's singing along to Guthrie, further "enervating" the song). It's notable, though, that the album ends on a rather disturbing note: 'Thinner Than Air', full of minor chords, menacingly distorted keyboards (unless they're also guitars, fed through some unidentified underwater effect gadget), and requiemesque vocals from Liz, is almost a distant threat. Or, at best (at worst?), a lament for a departed friend. Which just further conveys the idea that you don't mess around with the Twins - theirs is no "musical paradise"; they may have angels in there, but there's every chance of meeting quite a few fallen ones among them.

Still, like I said, it's much better to simply forget that there even are pauses between tracks and swallow all this in one gulp, salt and sugar mixed in one package. Because, first and foremost, it's a trip - not necessarily an acid one, just a trip to an enchanted forest, where pleasure and thrill is inseparable from danger and peril. So grab your big stick and off you go to "Victorialand". Oh, and I cannot, cannot at all, imagine meself a Loreena McKennitt without this album either. Even if she's obviously Celtic whereas from these guys' surnames, you couldn't tell.




Year Of Release: 1986

Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9

I honestly don't think it's the best collaboration the world's ever seen. But one that's worth experiencing anyway.

Best song: SEA, SHALLOW ME

Track listing: 1) Sea, Shallow Me; 2) Memory Gongs; 3) Why Do You Love Me; 4) Eyes Are Mosaics; 5) She Will Destroy You; 6) The Ghost Has No Home; 7) Bloody And Blunt; 8) Ooze Out And Away, Onehow.

This isn't really a Cocteau Twins album, not even in name; as you can see from the picture, especially if you have the eyes of a Gollum, it's actually credited to individual members of the band (all three of them) plus Harold Budd. But what's in a name but a name itself? This is very much a Cocteau Twins album in spirit, at least about half of it. Half, because the actual tracks never feel like a fifty-fifty deal: it's all either "The Cocteau Twins with Harold Budd as session player" or "Harold Budd with some arranging ideas courtesy of the Cocteau Twins". That's okay, though.

Not that it really looks that both were created for each other. One thing unites them - the love for "otherworldliness"; moody, enigmatic, faraway atmospheres. But Harold Budd's preferences lie in the formally static, ambient landscape, which makes him such a perfect spoil for Brian Eno; the Twins, on the other hand, make music that's essentially dynamic. Metaphorically speaking, Budd gives us life on Mars as seen from a slowly drifting spaceship; the Twins give us life on Mars as actually experienced by mingling with the Martian crowd. The resulting concoction predictably doesn't really gel. Fortunately, they happen to realize that, and maybe that's why mutual involvement in each other's contributions is mostly relegated to "supporting touches".

There is one track that seems to be an exception: the short, almost unnoticeable experiment of 'Bloody And Blunt' (a very misleading title - there's nothing even remotely bloody or blunt about the sonic textures of that one). All based on a looping guitar melody, quite in Victorialand style, it is nevertheless fully within the Budd paradigm, as if Guthrie was taking one of Harold's own themes and applying it to the guitar. Actually, it seems to be doubled by a quiet, unintrusive keyboard track. It's a fun, ear-pleasing composition, but without Fraser's unpredictable vocalizing, it's much too slight to produce any Cocteau Twins-style excitement, and without Budd's actively static, stately piano, it's also quite a long distance away from God.

Since I've never concealed the fact that dynamic music moves me far more than static one, it's obvious that the full-fledged Twins-style songs are my favourites on here. 'Bloody And Blunt' aside, they are more in the Treasure vein than in the Victorialand one, and that's also a good thing. In fact, the opening number, 'Sea, Shallow Me', had almost tricked me into thinking it was gonna be Treasure Vol. 2, mightily improved by Budd's piano contributions. The booming faraway drums, the ringing multi-tracked guitars, the numerous Liz Frasers cooing out unimitable harmonies, all are great, and when you add Budd's subtle piano touch, it all comes together in one heck of an unforgettable tune. It's good to have the song begin with a short solo Budd introduction - later on, the piano merges with the guitar so seamlessly that it would be very hard to detach one from another if you weren't given this little clue at the start.

'Eyes Are Mosaics' and 'She Will Destroy You' are nearly as good, although in terms of style and mood all three are pretty much the same song. Again, if you're looking for distinction, salvation comes from Liz, who gives each of the three a slightly individualistic reading (ever so slightly). I have no definite idea what she's chanting out there in 'She Will Destroy You', but it feels very much like 'essenza!' and 'esistenza!' (Italian for 'essence' and 'existence'), so I'm gonna assume they're offering us a crash course in early medieval philosophy here. It's much better, in any case, than to merely end up discovering that the real words are something like "as ants are" or "ass is tender". So don't relieve me if you know. I don't even wanna. Finally, there's 'Ooze Out And Away, Onehow', which is once again more in the Victorialand vein - stripped down and rhythmless, and not a highlight because Liz is murmuring rather than singing most of the time.

As for the Budd part, it's dominated by two lengthy "ambient epics": the dark side of ambient is represented by 'Memory Gongs' and the light side by 'The Ghost Has No Home'. To be honest, I've spilt plenty of pointless opinions on this style in my Eno reviews, so I'm not sure it'd be worth repeating all of them again. It was certainly more interesting for me to try and find out what exactly it is that the Twins add to the mixture - whether their presence has any difference at all. That's hard to do. But if we assume that Budd is mostly just playing the piano, then the Twins (Guthrie, mostly, I guess?) would have to be responsible for all the little touches. Like the tinkling glittery synth waves on 'Memory Gongs' and the faraway-beach pseudo-brass waves on 'Ghost'. Or the background elephant-like roar on the shorter 'Why Do You Love Me'. It's all fine and dandy, because it adds depth to the picture, but certainly not enough to carry us into an entirely different dimension.

I'm anything but mad at them, though. Why should I be? A side project is a side project - they're normally unambitious and, in fact, I have a naggin' suspicion they're more often the result of two creative artists wishing to find a pretext to hang together and exchange ideas than the result of a "let's change the world together!" attitude. In this particular case, I'm not sure who influenced who, and I'm even not sure if Victorialand was released before this puppy or after, but it's hardly possible that Victorialand's quiet, hushed atmosphere would have absolutely nothing to do with Budd's quiet, hushed style - which, in combination with the Twins' arrangement ideas, yielded exactly the kind of textures that we see on Victorialand. So it certainly works as a historical event, and it certainly works as a pleasant background refreshment, and it certainly can be recommended for devoted fans of both Budd and the Twins (even if I do not exclude that each of these two groups will only want to regularly listen to one half of this album). It's just not a great work of art, not if taken in the overall context, at least.

PS. However, don't forget to search out 'Sea, Shallow Me' wherever you can find it. That's one song that deserves to be remembered.



Year Of Release: 1988

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

If this is really the sound of death, I guess you'd better bring out the guillotine, quick!

Best song: CICO BUFF

Track listing: 1) Blue Bell Knoll; 2) Athol-Brose; 3) Carolyn's Fingers; 4) For Phoebe Still A Baby; 5) The Itchy Glowbo Blow; 6) Cico Buff; 7) Suckling The Mender; 8) Spooning Good Singing Gum; 9) A Kissed Out Red Floatboat; 10) Ella Megalast Burls Forever.

Well, Simon is back. But regardless, the band as a whole never goes back. As usual, the Cocteau Twins protected seal of quality is easily recognizable - but the music sounds different. They're doing fully arranged, multi-layered, increasingly sophisticated compositions again, relinquishing the light "relaxative" vibe of Victorialand. But this sure ain't Treasure II, either. Apparently Guthrie found himself new technological gadgets to slobber over, and as a result, the entire album sounds much more "keyboard-oriented" and much less "rocking" than before. I'm not sure if there actually were keyboards used or if all the sounds are really Guthrie running his guitars through the Taj Mahal basements. Fact is, they actually did come up with an entirely new sound, leaving the essence intact.

As usual, this is an excellent album, but perhaps a bit too messy to rank up there with Treasure. And by "messy" I mean 'there's too much of it!'. Even if it only runs for about 35 minutes. At times they just go overboard. When approximately seven thousand three hundred and fifty five Guthrie guitars mesh with approximately fifteen thousand five hundred and seventy three Liz Frasers (all singing and playing different melodies, of course - otherwise it would be BORING!), I start getting a serious case of split personality. It really takes much more than 35 minutes to bring all of them together, lock them up in one cage and put a serious guard on it.

One thing the average listener couldn't have noticed by simply listening, and the average critic couldn't have spotted by simply criticizing, is that, lo and behold, Liz Fraser is actually writing meaningful lyrics for these songs. Yes, can you believe that? At least half, if not more, of these songs actually make verbal sense! They are still totally undecipherable by ear, because it still looks like she's singing them in Japanese, but when you put them on paper or onscreen, hey, it works! So start downloading the lyrics, you muffleflugs. Rumour has it that she was actually shy about writing this stuff and singing it so that people could - oh horror - understand it, but hey, I sympathize. I'm sometimes shy of what I am writing, too. ("Sometimes?" More like "Every time the Gestapo force me to reread my reviews!"). Maybe I should Cocteautwinify my reviews for a change. You think?

Never mind. There are two songs here I especially like. One is 'Carolyn's Fingers'. Moving along to an almost proto-Madchester rhythm, it's got a totally head-spinning falsetto delivery from Liz - it may seem for a moment that she's been taking singing lessons from Kate Bush, but in all honesty, Kate Bush was never about "vocal gymnastics" like these. If, however, for some reason you would think of the song as a bit too 'fussy', I guess you'd never be able to resist the utter majesty of 'Cico Buff', which is just like this one overwhelming torrent of Heavenly Love. I can't even start to imagine the harmony rules that one song follows: Eastern, Western, everything gets mixed up, and the effect is amazing. For the record, the main hook of the song goes 'So many stars take care of me, take care of those they love', but, well, maybe I shouldn't. It looks spoilerish or something.

Funny, already long after my subconscious made this utterly non-democratic decision about my favourites, I actually learned that these two songs and no others were provided with a promotional video each ('Carolyn's Fingers' was also released as a single). Depending on your feelings for deviant Russian lovers of Cocteau Twins and/or the true nature of your inner self, you may either conclude that I'm a natural born commercial whore or that there exist certain objective regularities in sound perception.

Back to the matter at hand. The Cocteaus, as you know, have two main emotional regimes - the "Love/White Angels Overhead/Rosy Clouds/Life On Mars Is Wonderful" one and the "Death/Black Angels Everywhere/Dark Clouds/Life On Mars Is Dangerous" one - and, predictably, you can't have it all on one plate without being forcefed something from the other. Where there's love, there's fear. The title 'Blue Bell Knoll' itself comes from an old British legend about how death is upon you if you can hear the sound of the bluebell's knoll (whatever it may look like), which means that the title track can't really sound rosy and fluffy even in theory. And it is pretty disturbing, not only because of the spooky guitar noises Guthrie is overdubbing in the background (these I already got used to a long time ago), but mainly because of Liz' totally unimaginable vocalizing. Where does that stuff come from? This is... part Yoko Ono with her traditional Japanese screaming, part old Norse dirge, part desperate soul crooning, part God knows what. I don't know where it comes from. You do that research.

'The Itchy Glowbo Blow' also falls into the "disturbing" category; if you're a beginning arthouse filmmaker, I strongly recommend the track in case you're planning to make your female protagonist spend most of her screentime mooning around in an asylum. Hmm... You know, it actually turns out that these two tracks are the only representatives of the "dark" camp here. Everything else is either outright happy and shining, or somewhat neutral from this point of view. Maybe that's why it's a bit hard for me to speak of individual tracks - the atmospheres are similar; and maybe that's why I give Treasure the edge over this one - after hearing 'Carolyn's Fingers' and 'Cico Buff', you don't really need to hear the rest, although you're certainly entitled to. Well, I guess you do need to hear the second single from the album, 'A Kissed Out Red Floatboat'. Why? Because I told you so! And I'm a sucker for selling out, going commercial, and trading your artistic vision for the big bucks, which these guys obviously did when they dared to make 'Floatboat' into an almost offensively "POP-SLOP" song. Beautiful pop-slop song. Sellouts. Fags. Reaganists. Whatever.

Don't take these words seriously. Listen to this record instead. If this isn't the voice of God, it's time to throw God away and get a new one.

Don't take these words seriously. Listen to this record instead. If this isn't the voice of God, I don't know what is.



Year Of Release: 1990

Record rating = 9
Overall rating = 12

Innovation-less, but summarizing all the good stuff to a tee. Don't forget to open the champagne.


Track listing: 1) Cherry-Coloured Funk; 2) Pitch The Baby; 3) Iceblink Luck; 4) Fifty-Fifty Clown; 5) Heaven Or Las Vegas; 6) I Wear Your Ring; 7) Fotzepolitic; 8) Wolf In The Breast; 9) Road, River And Rail; 10) Frou-Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires.

It's not all that difficult to see why so many people hold this album as the culmination of the Twins' power. It's their cleanest-sounding release yet - with a glossy, shiny, transparent sound where everything is perfectly in its right place. All the vocals, all the guitars, even the drumming parts, everything is steady, mid-tempo, gallant, gracious, and crystal clear. There's an almost too perfect majestic calmness emanating from every song on here when compared to the sometimes reckless and wild experimentation on past glories. So it's up to you, reader, whoever you are, to make your choice - whether you prefer the ragged, outrageously produced riskiness of Treasure or the genteel, self-assured stability of Heaven Or Las Vegas.

My heart, in this particular case at least, lies fully with the risk and adventure, but that does not mean I would like to downgrade the quality of the material here. And how can you downgrade an album that begins with such a God-like song as 'Cherry Coloured Funk'? Remember what I wrote about 'Cico Buff' off the previous album? Well, everything on there applies to 'Cherry Coloured Funk' as well, with another totally mind-boggling vocal transition. That's not the whole song - it's a limited number of moments, but were I sharing a slightly more eccentric artistic nature, I'd probably say I could die a happy man upon hearing such a moment even once. Yes, when Liz makes that falsetto leap after each verse, it's Heaven opening again. Yes, Heaven, certainly not Las Vegas. How could you guys even suggest such an outrageous alternative? Shame on you.

No, it's just that I somehow cared for the Twins a bit more when they were radically less accessible. Here, it's easier to get to the melodies and it's easier to get to the lyrics (not that they will make a lot of sense anyway), and this brings them down in the "otherworldliness" department. No, no, this is not Las Vegas, this is still Heaven, but it's not Mars. It's... it's the stratosphere. It's the stratosphere, coloured in light (cherry colour?) red just before the dawn. Or, maybe, just before the sunrise. Actually, the album cover pretty much suits the music. And so we get to the title track - the album's most anthemic and "pretentious" statement, with its glorious chorus where the effect-fed guitars form a brightly ringing pattern and mesh perfectly with several overdubbed Liz Frasers; there's staticness and calm and at the same time there's an abruptness, a "burn" to this music which is really the sonic equivalent of the rising sun or something like that. Heck, I just fell into the trap of trying to verbally identify the effect of a Cocteau Twins song, so pardon me if I sound like an idiot. I don't have too much time to flesh out the words, you know. They wouldn't be prettier than the music even if I had.

Oh, wait, I actually know what must have bugged me the most about the record upon first listen. That classic division into the "dark" and the "light" sides, it's gone, whammo. Obliterated. All of a sudden, there's no more opposition. Everything is light rather than dark, which means that calling this 'light' has no meaning at all as well. Only 'Road, River And Rail' has a slightly more ominous, occasionally scary tinge to it, but even that song steps into Joni Mitchell mode in the chorus. Well, there's also 'I Wear Your Ring' which begins a bit like a dirge (mainly because the lines are so long and so monotonous) but then becomes complete and utter rosy paradise again.

Now, this is mood music (albeit with great melodies), so don't count me offended, but I really used to like to picture these albums as "battles" between the light and the dark, and seeing one side of the two finally take such a complete victory didn't exactly make my day. Plus, wasn't 'Iceblink Luck' the single off this album? If so, what the heck? It's easily the least exciting track on the entire album. The vocal gymnastics are great, but so are the ones on about half of the other tracks, and the chorus is nice, but it hardly brings you closer to God. Okay, maybe it's one of the loudest (and for some reason, suddenly going into a quasi Bo Diddley-beat at the end - what?) numbers on here, but that hardly means anything. And there's really a bit too much emphasis on generic rhythmic textures throughout - 'Pitch The Baby' and 'Fifty-Fifty Clown', in particular, suffer a lot from these "mainstreamish" decisions.

It's goddang fine they put the two best songs after 'Cherry Coloured Funk' near the end of the album, because otherwise I could have begun to drop off by the end of that half hour. 'Wolf In The Breast' gives out a great charge of optimism, with Fraser's vocals dripping out of every possible opening (I know the metaphor sounds a bit pornographic, but my intentions were perfectly innocent); and 'Frou-Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires' (ooh, these titles) starts out suspiciously quiet and toned down, almost like something off Victorialand, but then gets resolved in yet another anthemic chorus structured as a dizzy lyrical roundabout (to prolong the effect they even have a bunch of Lizs chant 'pulling rounder, rounder' - which I at first mistook for 'London, London' and spent a lot of time wondering why the hell they should decide to make the concluding track an ode to that particular location and not, say, Aldebaran).

Rereading bits and chunks of what I have just written, I can see I've been somewhat grumpy all around, but that's my usual nasty approach for albums which I consider overrated by those who actually overrate them. I do believe I have the band members themselves on my side, though - in several interviews at least, they very clearly stated that Heaven Or Las Vegas was just another Cocteau Twins album to them. And it is. Just another great Cocteau Twins album, to be more precise. Certainly more palatable for the general, unaccustomed public, and certainly understandable from a "natural" point of view: the Twins had taken their experimentation as far as they could. To take it further would mean abandoning the concept of melody, which they'd always treasured, and so they decided to sacrifice some of the boldness and audacity instead. Fine by me! But if my opinion means anything, don't make this record your starting point. It doesn't provide major insight into why the Twins were actually important - by 1990, there were already quite a few artists who sounded, if not exactly the same way, then at least similarly. And it just doesn't shatter your (okay, MY) mind the same way Treasure and Head Over Heels do. But apart from that, this is all glorious material still, and yes, if you wanna charm a romantic high class girlfriend, this will certainly fit in far better. Although I guess it goes better with cherry liqueur than with good ol' champagne. It's a color thing, you understand.



Year Of Release: 1993

Record rating = 6
Overall rating = 9

If this ain't a self-parody, it's gotta be burnout. Too bad.


Track listing: 1) Know Who You Are At Every Age; 2) Evangeline; 3) Bluebeard; 4) Theft, And Wandering Around Lost; 5) Oil Of Angels; 6) Squeeze-Wax; 7) My Truth; 8) Essence; 9) Summerhead; 10) Pur.

Well, you know, considering all the odds, it's a marvel that the Cocteau Twins only started sucking ass more than a decade after the threat became clearly visible. After all, a band that has no less than a streak of six classic albums in a row (not counting the collaborative Moon And The Melodies) behind its belt, has every right to release nothing but garbage for the rest of their lives and still have a place reserved in the quarters of the Heavenly Jade Emperor. And yet, it still makes me a little sad that they finally crashed.

Signs of it were evident on Heaven Or Las Vegas - signs that the Twins were getting weary of the struggle and strife and ready to settle down into a simple, unambitious, static paradigm. But there was certainly inspiration behind Las Vegas, and a good deal of artistic will and strength. Melodies, hooks, a modicum of diversity, and above all, an atmosphere that was still pretty much unattainable by anybody but the Twins. But three more years have passed, and lo, it's all gone. Or, rather, "IT'S AAAAAAAAALL GOOOOOOOOONE!", as The Perennial Moper Robert Smith would say. And I really wanna shout it out loud. In pain. And anguish.

The Twins' seventh albums opens out fine, with the haunting 'Know Who You Are At Every Age'. I'm a bit concerned about Guthrie's lack of interesting guitar riffs - the phasing and multiple layers of acustic strumming are a given, but I'd like something more palpable, if you know what I mean. But never mind, because Liz makes up for this with another vocal melody that makes me melt. The 'I'm not real and I deny, I won't heal unless I cry' hook of the song makes us face the angels again; too bad they never let us know this is gonna be the first and last such moment on the record. But so far, it's okay. I know they opened the previous record with the best tune as well, but hey, if the rest turns out to be even two thirds as enticing, this is gonna be a worthy follow-up, right?

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The rest of this album just doesn't go anywhere. There is no diversity whatsoever - every next song is just one more slowly-moving lethargic jello-like piece of atmosphere. The last traces of the "light vs. dark" opposition are gone; now everything is a rosy-sweet dream with no edge, no development, no dynamics of its own. If this weren't enough, Guthrie's playing reaches the apex of laziness; if it is true that he finally managed to kick his drug addiction right before the recording of the album, it only solidifies my sad, sad theory that cleaning up may be good for one's health but usually wreaks havoc on one's artistic abilities. (Not that I could ever blame anybody for cleaning up, don't get me wrong - but I'm far from the first person to tell you that great art is usually produced by great suffering, you know). And I have nothing against minimalism, but these guys are NOT MINIMALISTS! They aren't! I don't want any minimalism from them! By being minimalist, they streamline their music - half of these songs, heck, all of these songs remind me of friggin' Enya! And I like Enya, but Guthrie/Fraser are not Enya! They were there long before Enya and they don't need to be influenced by Enya or anybody Enya-like.

And Liz doesn't help matters any - her singing here is universally weaker than ever. She'd lost a bit of her upper range by the early Nineties, and this obviously spurred her onto dropping the vocal gymnastics and just taking it straight and easy. Too straight and easy: she just softly coos and croons most of the time, blending into the woodwork, and even the once resplendent multiple overdubs now give the impression of wispy strands of echoes lost behind the trees rather than of the fairy-land angel choir of old. Listen to something like 'My Truth' and tell me I'm not justified in that assessment. Songs like these should be bottled on one of those "Relaxative Sounds of Nature" compilations so aggressively marketed by cheap TV channels rather than on a legit Cocteau Twins record.

At the same time, the lyrics are starting to make more and more 'common sense', with many of the songs taking on a sort of confessional look, as if Liz were trying to communicate to us some deeply felt inner religious torment. Thank God, though, that they are still so hard to make out, because if a female singer-songwriter tried to heave something like 'My body's offended/He took my belief/And I give back his shame/And I take back my power' upon my poor conscience (take heed, Tori Amos!), I'd have to do something of a very unpleasant nature in response. As it is, I only just get the vague idea that there's some spiritual meaning behind this. Well, okay. Spiritual meaning rules, as long as you're not trying to actually interpret it.

The album's saving grace is that "generic" is about the worst thing that could be said about it. As a piece of generic New Age-ish romantic slush, it works as well as anything else. And it is bookmarked by at least one classic ('Know Who You Are...') and one semi-classic: 'Pur' does the old classic Twins trick of deceiving you into thinking it's gonna be a sadistically somnambulent atmospheric closer and then suddenly shifting gears and transforming into a religious anthem just as you're ready to shut down the album; and speaking of which, it is, both in atmosphere, guitar textures, and a suddenly powerful and energetic lower-key delivery from Liz, arguably the closest number on here to Heaven style.

Later on, you start picking up little tasty bits, like the pretty guitar riff on 'Bluebeard', for instance; there's certainly enough of them here to justify some fans' ardent defense of this record. But there's just not enough to present me with one good reason why I should ever care for this kind of material. I have neither the time nor the will to keep listening to it for hours and hours until it "sinks in"; as far as I'm concerned, it has no deeply concealed mystical power to be finally revealed at a certain moment of enlightenment.

And then there's another conundrum for you - what the hell made them put out 'Evangeline', easily the album's least inventive and memorable track, as the single? Was this an intentional "reputation sabotage", a clear sign to let everybody know that yes, the Twins are now ready to pass the torch to the next generation of soundscape wizards? Beats me.



Year Of Release: 1996

Record rating = 7
Overall rating = 10

Better in melody terms, but still not exactly "back on track".

Best song: TISHBITE

Track listing: 1) Violaine; 2) Serpentskirt; 3) Tishbite; 4) Half-Gifts; 5) Calfskin Smack; 6) Rilkean Heart; 7) Ups; 8) Eperdu; 9) Treasure Hiding; 10) Seekers Who Are Lovers.

In between Four-Calendar Cafe and Milk And Kisses (which wasn't actually going to be the Twins' farewell song, but somehow became exactly that), the band had a couple more EPs out, said to be far more experimental than the LPs they bookmark - unfortunately, I haven't heard these, so I'll just have to say that their last record strikes me as being just as "unprogressive" as its predecessor, but seriously more satisfying in the overall melody department.

Which is not saying a lot, I know, I know. Apparently, at one point when everything was going wrong with life, somebody told Liz Fraser something like 'I wish I could take all the poision out of you and replace it with milk and kisses", and she loved the idea so much that not only did they use it as the album title, they made the entire album sound like milk and kisses. Even the album sleeve looks like a milk chocolate bar under magnification. Unfortunately, the world is built on opposites, and building your life on milk and kisses alone leaves you in sore deficit of other equally vital elements. Poison, for instance. Meaning that, once again, we're deprived of the band's "dark" side, and that's a pity.

However, Milk And Kisses is nowhere near as jello-like as Cafe either. The rhythms are a little sharper this time around, the bass parts more audible, and the vocal hooks more shapely. I do think there was an idea of getting back to where it all started, to recapture at least some of the magic of Treasure; maybe that's why the percentage of nonsensical lyrics is getting higher since the last two records. Naturally, succeeding in that would be a Herculean deed; too many things had happened since 1984. But at least it ensures that there are three dreampop classics on this album, in my eyes and ears, as compared to just one on Cafe.

The first one - a deserved single - is 'Tishbite', a song that sounds a bit R'n'B-ish to me, with an organ-backed wall of sound that, oddly enough, reminds me of 'Like A Rolling Stone' at times, although, of course, with the Twins there's not a single ounce of Dylan's aggression. There's majesty and jubilation, but no poison. The lyrics are confessional and spiritual ('I feel a connection/But it's not reflected' - try harder, Liz! Okay, bad joke...), but it's the transgression from stately verse to angelic chorus that's the most sweeping, of course, as well as - again - the returning "miriads of Liz Frasers" singing different parts, softer and harsher ones. It's not really quintessential Twins - the basic structure of the song is too "normal" for that - but I'd rather have beatiful non-quintessential Twins than forgettable quintessential ones. Besides, it's fun when you're actually able to draw an analogy between Dylan and Robin Guthrie. That's what reviewing is for!

The second one - hey, it's also confessional and spiritual - is 'Rilkean Heart', with the most inspiring duet between the guitar riff and the rising vocal line in the chorus ('I understand that you're confused...') on the record, and, again, a miriad of Frasers cooing out vocal harmonies in the 'instrumental' section (or was that the bridge?). And finally 'Seekers Who Are Lovers', with the most complex vocal part on the album; hey, whoever said Liz had lost part of her range? Oh, it was herself. Well, she was wrong about it. The operatic vocals in the background are as awesome as ever.

What really strikes me, though, is that the best tunes on this album all have Liz at her 'fullest' - singing sense-making lyrics, often audible and marginally understandable, and carrying a certain religious message that's expressed not just in the intonations, but in the power of the singing and in the actual words. It almost makes me wonder: could it be possible that, if the band actually carried on, it would eventually metamorphose into a sort of "Liz Fraser Experience" where she would play the part of a singer-songwriter along the lines of Tori Amos and Guthrie would be her faithful watchdog? Because at this point, the Twins hit me much more with their 'normal-ler' songs than with their half-assed attempts at recapturing the old style. And if I'm not mistaken, Liz herself seems to be much more interested in ardently trying to finally communicate something particular to the listener than in playing the old interplanetary game. And she has the means to, believe you me; years and years of artistry gave her more than enough wisdom and experience to have the right to be "vocally pretentious", and she knows just how to be it. And she wants to be it. And if you want to be a thing like that, it's pretty hard to combine it with the old style, the tried 'n' true. So the tried 'n' true doesn't work.

For instance, it's hard for me to get ecstatic about something like 'Calfskin Smack'. All I hear is a rudimentary (for Guthrie's usual standards) acoustic rhythm and a set of barely connected vocal moans and groans, pretty rarely coming together to make any serious point. The same thing, only worse, applies to 'Ups', which could be done by a Cocteau Twins cover band for all I know, so much it reeks of sterile formula. Or 'Eperdu' - that song just looks like they were having some few minutes of vocal practice before actually starting to record real material and somehow that vocal practice wound up on the final album by mistake. Oh, I'd still take simple vocal practice from Liz Fraser over a million LPs by female singer-songwriters all over the world, don't get me wrong, BUT! BUT! I need to hear inspiration, not "business", and that's exactly what it is becoming. Business.

So it is no big wonder that the following Cocteau Twins album, although planned, was never realized. The big wonder is that neither Fraser nor Guthrie really had it left in them to take off as solo artists - Guthrie's first solo album came out as late as 2003 and, from what I hear, wasn't particularly earth-shaking; and Liz's only post-Twins ventures into the musical world were collaborations with other bands and performers (so the proposed "singer-songwriter" career never really happened - too bad). But I guess maybe that was at least honest.


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