Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020 in Review

In this strange year without much live music, my writing here has obviously suffered. I still saw a few shows early in the year, and one during the early autumn lull, but nothing big. Last year was a record number of concerts and reviews for me, and I had no hope of matching that this year. However, I released my first solo song in 9 years and an album from my old band in Austin, and I’m about to release some more music, too. But like any other year, I’ve spent a ton of time listening to music, and like I did last year, I’ll share a few of my favorite releases from 2020.

Here they are, in alphabetical order:
  • The Asteroid No.4 - Northern Songs - The obvious Beatles references are well-done, but so are the Isn’t Anything-era My Bloody Valentine bits. This is a wonderful psych rock adventure.
  • Cremant Ding Dong - assorted singles - Great lyrics, great videos, great music, prominent cute cat. Hard to beat that.
  • Cup Collector - Cordum Hominum Renovatio and Morning Cofee and Tea - The former might be CC’s best electric guitar-based drone yet, and the latter is a successful experiment with layers of nylon-string guitar. I hope it’s not absurd to say that Cup Collector has become my favorite artist to listen to while doing lockdown yoga.
  • Elephant Stone - Hollow - Is this an album about the end of the world released before the pandemic reached full fury? Doesn’t matter, the music is rich and the storytelling is prescient. This is my favorite Elephant Stone album yet. The more explicitly pandemic-related “American Dream” single is also good, albeit a bit precious.
  • Holy Wave - Interloper - Their live shows were always great, and now they finally have an album that equals them. They’ve grown far from their garage roots and have embraced a wealth of new sounds, naturally mostly psychedelic in nature. The lyrics are a huge leap, too: “Maybe Then I Can Cry” hit me hard.
  • Hum - Inlet - Is this another album about the world ending, again presumably written and recorded before the pandemic? This album sounds huge and simultaneously vibrant. It’s their best yet.
  • Ian Fisher - American Standards - This adopted Austrian sure seems enamored with Nashville, but the music is tellingly much wider in scope than mainstream country or even the classic 70s pop hinted at in “AAA Station”. The lyrics are even more powerful and self-aware than Ian’s already-high standard. I can read the excellent title track five or six different ways, and I love that I don’t know which is right.
  • Melange & Jacco Gardner - “Ashokh” single - It’s such a shame they only recorded this one song and that the band broke up. It’s a superb, spritely, groovy jam on par with their wondrous Viento Bravo from 2017.
  • Monta at Odds - Zen Diagram and A Great Conjunction EPs - Both are majestic kosmiche space rock from my hometown of Kansas City, and the former successfully covers a great Tones on Tail song.
  • Nation of Language - Introduction, Presence - Is this pure 80s nostalgia? Yes, probably. But is it a crime to want to sound like Simple Minds or OMD? Certainly not!
  • Pia Fraus - Empty Parks - This sounds like an Estonian blend of Slowdive (especially their self-titled album from 2017), Stereolab, and Loveless, and obviously I rather enjoy it. I wish it was a bit punchier, but sometimes soft and warm is nice, too.
A few additional honorable mentions:
  • Khruangbin - Mordechai - Khruangbin seem incapable of making bad music, but this album is merely pleasant. It actually sounds more derivative than their previous albums, and some parts are a touch too silly. Their collaborative Texas Sun EP with Leon Bridges from earlier in the year was also an interesting aside, but where Bridges’ vocals shone, the lyrics didn’t.
  • Mietminderung - Tatsächliche Verhältnisse EP - Their tagline of “rock music in bureaucratically-inflected German generally about interpersonal relationships” really undersells them, but it hits a certain type of dry German humor on the head. The vocals are indeed a bit stiff, but the music is more adventurous. This is the last and best of the three EPs they’ve released this year.
  • Neil Young - Homegrown - The Archives Volume II collection is almost too big to handle, but this forgotten record is a condensed version of the best of the unreleased content. It’s not exactly great and I understand why he shelved it. Then again, it’s also idiosyncratic and emotionally complex, so it’s a shame that it took 46 years to release it. (I’m almost considering buying the box set anyway just for the wonderful CSNY versions of “Human Highway”, though.)
  • Perlee - Slow Creature EP - It starts slow and doesn’t really pick up much at all, but “Charlie’s Song” is quite good. The early-era Beach House vibes are heavy, but the harmonies are a nice extra touch.
And while I don’t like being rude, there were a few high-ish profile releases that I have to admit I was a bit disappointed by. Here are those:
  • Einstürzende Neubauten - Alles in Allem - I love Neubauten, but not this album. It lacks the creative energy and unpredictable spark of their finest works. It’s weirdly restrained and dour. I like the requiem for Rosa Luxemburg, though.
  • Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension - This seems like a retread of The Age of Adz, but with less variation. Some of the lyrics are nice, but I don’t really get it.
  • Other Lives - For Their Love - I really like the idea of this band, and I still think Tamer Animals is excellent, but this one sounds a bit stale. Much like Rituals from 2015, it sounds huge and cavernous, yet lacks anything memorable.
Lastly, there were again some excellent albums from (relatively) recent years that I missed before but picked up this year. Here are some of the best:
  • Lush - Blind Spot EP (2016) - Their only new music after reuniting, and it matches their classic sound in all the right ways.
  • Monta at Odds - Argentum Dreams (2018) - More great space rock with lovely 80s synth sounds, but also featuring Lawrence artist Your Friend!
  • Tocotronic - K.O.O.K. (1999) - Tocotonic took a while to grow on me. The lyrics are subtle and yet evocative. Musically, I think this is their album that’s most closely tuned to my tastes.
With any luck, live music will be a viable option again at some point in 2021!

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Cocteau Twins - The 4AD 80s albums

A couple weeks ago, I reviewed Lullabies to Violaine, Volume 1, a collection of all the Cocteau Twins’ EPs and singles on 4AD in the 80s. Now I’d like to cover the albums from the same period. The first few mirror the EPs and singles quite closely, but starting in 1986, they begin to diverge. The albums tend to be more focused in specific themes and sounds, and as such, they are a bit less wildly exciting, but still they represent thoroughly solid listening experiences in their longer forms.

Garlands was the first ever Cocteau Twins release in September 1982. It’s dark, post-punk, and gothic, and it’s the only album with bassist Will Heggie. The combination of heavy chorus bass riffs, pointed and thickly distorted lead guitar lines, heavy drum machine reverb, and lots of stuttered vocals makes for a rather harsh sound. It sounds strained and raw, and it doesn’t really vary very widely. I like the creative use of guitar delay, though, and the album sort of presages their later exploration, but it’s much more limited in scope.

Head Over Heels (released on Halloween 1983) is still dark and gothy, but it’s somewhat more exploratory. Most of the instrumentation and tone is similar to prior recordings, but with the addition of some keyboards and acoustic guitars. It was recorded as a duo after Heggie left, but there is still bass, presumably recorded by Robin Guthrie. The production is slightly richer and more vibrant. It’s right on the line of the original gothy sound and something new. “Sugar Hiccup” is of course excellent, but it sticks out a bit. (It fits on Sunburst and Snowblind a bit better.) “In the Gold Dust Rush” is also notably a step forward, and “Multifoiled” is surprisingly playful.

By the time Treasure was released in November 1984, Cocteau Twins had hit their stride. Treasure picks up about where The Spangle Maker EP left off, and even if it can’t quite match that level of consistency, it’s their first really good album. It’s also their first album with bassist Simon Raymonde. It finally shows them opening up and really coming into their own; it’s full of great guitar and keyboard sounds, and Elizabeth Fraser really started exploring the full power of her voice. Almost every song has something cool and creative going for it. “Ivo” is perhaps the most remarkable of the lot, and it’s such an awesome opening track. It starts all dark and spooky like their previous work, but then suddenly tumbles into something grand, full, and bombastic. That’s followed up with “Lorelei”, another solid song that starts right off with insistent guitar and bells, hearkening the coming of majestic new heights. It feels so lush, and Fraser’s voice sounds full of hushed anticipation. The album gets a bit weirder starting with “Beatrix”, and a few songs like “Cicely” and “Otterley” are just a bit too dark and dull. But right at the end of album closer “Domino”, they pull a nice trick and refresh themselves anew.

After a streak of incredible EPs, the band changed gears for Victorialand, released in April 1986. As Raymonde was busy with This Mortal Coil, it was recorded again as a duo. This time, though, there’s hardly any bass or even drums at all, but there is some saxophone from Richard Thomas of Dif Juz. Otherwise, it’s mostly just acoustic or shimmering electric guitar and vocals. The result is sparse and open but still pretty, which makes for a very chill and relaxing listen. Opener “Lazy Calm” takes some time to get going, but it expands beautifully. “Fluffy Tufts” and “Little Spacey” are quite pleasant, too. Just a few tracks like “Throughout the Dark Months of April and May” and “The Thinner the Air” are more overcast. The album is a bit short and feels a bit slight, especially after how much they crammed into each of the preceding releases. It feels like a distinct break from everything they’d done before, but it wouldn’t be the last time they’d explore these elements.

Right after the stunning Love’s Easy Tears EP came The Moon and the Melodies in November 1986. With Raymonde back in the fold, this album was also a collaboration with ambient composer Harold Budd. (Strangely it was credited to each of the four contributors as individuals.) Richard Thomas turns up again on sax, too. The result is not at all like Love’s Easy Tears; it’s much closer to Victorialand, but with the notable addition of particularly expressive piano. Most of the album is open, broadly ambient, and instrumental. “Memory Gongs” represents the best of that bunch; it’s just a cool atmosphere, like walking on a frozen pond in the woods, with piano and little synth noises dripping down on the icy splendor. The rest of the album (“Sea, Swallow Me”, “Eyes Are Mosaics”, “She Will Destroy You”) is like normal Cocteaus but chiller, lighter, and more shimmery, but still further on the ambient spectrum than usual. The whole concept feels like a risk, and even if it isn’t stellar across the board, it’s still quite good. “Sea, Swallow Me” is great by any standard. Fraser’s vocals are big and dramatic, and the music swells and shines right in step. The album is not as weird or dark or even as mysterious as their prior work, but the expansiveness and grandiosity can still be found here and there. The latter half of the album is maybe a bit too sparse, but “Ooze Out and Away, Onehow” finally turns it up right before the end.

Cocteau Twins finally took some time off at that point. They stopped releasing EPs for the next seven years, and they took a break from touring as well. Their next release was Blue Bell Knoll in September 1988. If this was the condensed best of two years of work, it shows. It’s refined, complex, and exciting, but also bright, beautiful, and almost entirely upbeat. It would seem the band had access to a modest budget, and they made great use of it. It’s not quite as varied and dynamic as Treasure or their best EPs, but it is a return to the forms of those releases. “Blue Bell Knoll” starts the album off on a high note, entrancing the listener with the rolling harpsichord sound. “Carolyn’s Fingers” is one of their all-time best. The heights of Fraser’s voice are wondrous and the music is gorgeous. “For Phoebe Still a Baby” brings the energy down a notch, but it’s still just as pretty. “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat” might be their first sequencer-driven song, and it presages the full, soft beauty of Heaven or Las Vegas. I love the weird spacey sounds, too. The album might rely on a few tried and true formulas (acoustic guitar strums and delay-laden electric arpeggios), but there’s nothing wrong with that when the results are this good.

Heaven or Las Vegas, released in September 1990, is the peak of Cocteau Twins. It’s dream pop at it’s finest. It’s full, stunning, and luscious, with a huge sound, excellent production, and an obviously good budget. It’s the best they’d ever do in the album format. The band was starting to fracture, and this was their last album for 4AD, but you can hardly tell. It’s their most accessible, mainstream, and pop-oriented work, yet doesn’t compromise their vision, scope, or grandeur. It’s also their dance-friendliest music. Every song has something of a driving pulse laying the groundwork for the ethereal layers. It’s also notable for lyrics that started to move back into decipherable territory. The influence of a newborn baby is maybe even discernible. “Cherry-Coloured Funk” is a great title, even if I wouldn’t call it funk, but the “cherry-coloured” part seems to fit. “Fifty-Fifty Clown” and “Road, River and Rail” are slightly cloudier and uncertain, but still lovely. “Heaven or Las Vegas” is one of their best, another one of their songs that just keeps pouring down incredible sounds and vocal lines. “Fotzepolitic” and “Wolf in the Breast” manage similar feats without getting repetitive. Closer “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” starts slow and haunting with the characteristic feedback wails, but then widens into a beautiful chiming chorus. This is the band at the peak of their talents, and unfortunately they’d never quite reach them again.

In their streak of albums for 4AD, Cocteau Twins managed to consistently expand their range, and almost every album was an improvement over the last. It must’ve been magical to see where they’d go next. They ended up in a very different place than where they began, and it’s fascinating to see the progression. It’s also a pleasure to hear how the albums and EPs fit together and show different sides of the band. Heaven of Las Vegas might be rightfully heralded as a masterpiece, but there’s plenty of other good music to be found here as well.

Garlands: C
Head Over Heels: C+
Treasure: B+
Victorialand: B-
The Moon and the Melodies: B
Blue Bell Knoll: A-
Heaven or Las Vegas: A+

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Cocteau Twins - Lullabies to Violaine, Volume 1 (2005)

Discovering Cocteau Twins is like finding a massive treasure chest that’s barely hidden in the woods, and there’s always more there. I’ve still never found another band that quite matches their bizarre beauty and raw emotive force (and I’ve tried!). The combination of Elizabeth Fraser’s expressive voice and unusual delivery with Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde’s otherworldly instrumentation is magical. The fact that they consistently relied on drum machines takes nothing away from the total wonder of their sound. It took me years to fully appreciate them, but they’ve become one of my absolute favorites.

Cocteau Twins came from an era where EPs were an important format, and they made full use of them. In fact, much of their best music can only be found on them. Thankfully, in 2005 they released Lullabies to Violaine, a collection of all of their EPs and singles spread over four CDs. The first volume covers the 80s, which begins with their early recordings with founding bassist Will Heggie and continues through their prime years up to the release of their best album, Heaven or Las Vegas (1990). In some ways, these two discs are like a greatest hits compilation. They roughly follow the progression of the albums, but that breaks down around 1986. Here I will review this first volume and the EPs it contains.

Lullabies was the band’s first EP, released just after their debut album Garlands in October 1982. Like the album, the EP is very gothy and post-punk and sounds quite indebted to Siouxsie & the Banshees or The Cure from the same era. The music is aggressive and energetic, but also simpler than what would follow. Heggie’s heavily chorused bass and Guthrie’s spidery guitar form the basis for Fraser to exorcise her demons over. Her lyrics are mostly understandable, but sound dark and esoteric. It’s not the most engaging or comforting listen. “Feathers-Oars-Blades” is a strong and upbeat opener, but the rest doesn’t match it.

Peppermint Pig came in March 1983 and continued the same thread as the first two releases. It was the last release with Heggie but their first to feature prominent keyboards. Otherwise it isn’t particularly compelling, and it sounds flatter and less well-developed than their earlier and later recordings. There’s more space, but in an unwelcome, off-putting way. All three tracks are very similar. The rare involvement of an outside producer (Alan Rankine) is telling and was obviously a mistake. The compilation has the edited 7" version of the title track, but the 12" just features a longer intro with more keyboards and distorted guitar, so not much is missing.

Sunburst and Snowblind, released in November 1983, followed right after Head over Heels and is something of an extension of it. The both share “Sugar Hiccup”, the first truly awesome Cocteau Twins song. Sunburst is a huge leap over their previous work, and it’s even better than Head over Heels. They finally started to find their stride despite (or perhaps because of?) the loss of Heggie. Fraser’s vocals became more oblique and more about mood and texture than specific words. Guthrie explored more keyboards and a more ethereal, brighter, and more expansive sound removed from their gothy roots. From this point on, the meaning of their songs became less about the content of the lyrics and more about the emotions that sweep you along with the music. “Sugar Hiccup” isn’t exactly upbeat, but it’s grand and majestic. The choral sound at the end is just lovely. “From the Flagstones” is slower but still comes across as big and dramatic, like walking along the ramparts of a castle. It too features the comforting choral synths, but brings back the heavy chorus on the bass. “Hithero” and “Because of Whirl-Jack” are both driving but tense, and they aren’t quite at the same level. They seem caught between the old and new styles.

The Spangle Maker from April 1984 was the band’s first release with Simon Raymonde on bass. It’s a resounding success and all three tracks are great. “The Spangle Maker” features impressive feedback squalls over what sounds like a huge open landscape. It’s like a slowly brewing storm with strong winds in a desert canyon. Then it finally bursts into a huge final section with choral effects and big keyboards. “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” is more immediate and strident from the start. It’s full of great layered vocal parts, delightful little synth bells, and lots of little guitar effect touches. It’s pure dream pop bliss, and it’s no surprise that it was their biggest single. The compilation features a unique mix, but it’s the best version. The 7" version is similar but shorter, and although the 12" version starts with an extra twinkly section, the mix is less full and not quite as good. “Pepper-Tree” is the band’s first truly bizarre track. Fraser’s vocals are impressively strange; she sounds like an enchanted woodland fairy. The song is like wandering through a ghostly rainforest cave. It’s spooky, mysterious, and fairly removed from pop music, but the experimentation and atmosphere pay off.

1985 was Cocteau Twins’ first year without an album, but they still managed to release three EPs, all of which reveal the band at the height of their powers. Aikea-Guinea came first in March, and it’s practically perfect from start to finish. The title track is again bright, grand, otherworldly, uplifting, and full of layers and beautiful but totally incomprehensible spirals of vocals. It sounds like brilliant birds in flight in the bright springtime sun. The compilation version is a unique mix, but the only difference from the original is that it jumps in cold instead of fading in. “Kookaburra” is similar and very upbeat, but with more shadowy sections. It sounds like a rushing horseride through the fields and then into the woods. The keyboards in particular remind me of The Cure from the same era. “Quisquose” starts darker, with anguished vocals and colossal echo on the keyboard parts, but then it shifts into a brighter section with superb crystalline guitar delay. It’s like a battle between light and darkness or an intense internal conflict. “Rococo” starts minimal, hesitant, distant, and somewhat peaceful, like the calm before a storm or a battle, then breaks into a much bigger, louder, heavier, aggressive section. It’s deceptive, but the sense of space is excellent. It’s also a rare instrumental.

Tiny Dynamine came next in November 1985. It’s full of fantastic sounds and effectively conveyed emotions without relying on lexical content, even if it doesn’t quite match the mind-blowing excitement of the previous two EPs. “Pink Orange Red” starts slow, spacey, and minimal and then expands beautifully with a hint of darkness and regret, but of course the lyrics are the names of butterflies or something. It’s full of towers of delayed guitar and sounds like the twists and turns of some ancient epic. “Ribbed and Veined”, another lush instrumental, has more of the great crystalline dripping guitar parts. It sounds like a rainforest atmosphere, and perhaps there’s a temple or some forgotten structure hidden within where the electronic piano sound comes in. “Plain Tiger” isn’t quite as standout but still has an intriguing blend of light and dark atmospheres. The highlight is the great vocal parts. The mood is conflicted: the first part is tense, the second is anguished, and it’s not until the end that it switches nicely into a more open (and rare) guitar pseudo-solo. It feels like the coming of a prophet or a good omen. “Sultitan Itan” is a rarer example of starting bright and then getting darker; it starts simple and pretty, full of soft bass and guitars, but switches to more intense, dramatic sections.

Echoes in a Shallow Bay, recorded at the same time as Tiny Dynamine and released just a couple weeks after it, is more experimental, less pop, and overall somewhat darker. It’s not as purely awe-inspiring, but it’s still good. “Great Spangled Fritillary” starts weird and uncomfortable, like some mysterious, dark, and cloudy alien planet. It picks up a bit, as if you’ve encountered a strange artifact or an unexpected inhabitant, and it’s full of intriguing sounds. “Melonella” is a dramatic recital of moth names, which is amusingly aggressive and intense for such absurd lyrics! It jumps right in, like preparations or ritual chanting before a battle or escape. Other parts calm down a bit, as if life returns to normal and there is space to find some beauty in the cracks. “Pale Clouded White” is another faster-paced but somewhat darker song. It has a full sound with distant guitar squalls, pounding keyboards and drums, and acoustic guitar strums and choral synth in the choruses. It sounds like warning sirens and high alert, again like running hastily from some threat. “Eggs and Their Shells” is also full of strange and awesome sounds, like wind rushing by towering buildings shining in the sun in a vast, lonesome expanse. It’s not quite as dramatic, though, and doesn’t move like most of the others.

Love’s Easy Tears, from October 1986, is a distinct break between two more subdued and almost ambient albums (Victorialand and The Moon and the Melodies with Harold Budd). It’s closer to Treasure or especially Blue Bell Knoll. They apparently saved all the dramatic, radiant, and upbeat songs that they had for this EP, and the result is flawless. The title track, beautiful and dramatic, is one of their absolute best. Incredible vocals and lush guitars just keep raining down. “Those Eyes, That Mouth” is also fairly upbeat and shimmering, but a bit more driving. It has less variation, but pulses prettily and brightly with chiming guitars and some strange seagull effects. “Sigh’s Smell of Farewell” is mellower and softer, again with great vocal layers. It’s subtler and less overwhelming but still shimmering and clear, and it expands into something bigger halfway through with nice phasing and a grand expanse. “Orange Appled” might be my favorite of them all. It starts strident and bold with great keyboards and expands with bells and vocal layers. It reminds me of a shining palatial metropolis. The bridge switches into an awesome alternate swirling mode, like riding a train through a tunnel in a mountain.

From then on, the frequency of releases took a sharp downturn. The last release on the compilation is the "Iceblink Luck" single from August 1990. The title track is a slightly edited version of the track from the supreme Heaven of Las Vegas. It’s poppy and accessible, and the words are even mostly understandable as was common for that phase. It has the best production values of their career and sounds incredibly detailed. “Mizake the Mizan” is similarly well-produced but is less dramatic and upbeat. It’s conspicuously inconspicuous. “Watchlar” is an unusually electronic track, but it also just kind of carries on without ever really picking up. The single itself is great but the b-sides aren’t really notable; it’s their first release with tracks that feel like just b-sides.

That’s the end of the compilation; unfortunately it starts and ends on lesser notes, but the jungles within are where the real treasure is. However, there were just a few additional tracks from the era that never made it to an album or an EP, and most of them were collected on an extra disc of the Cocteau Twins Singles Collection from 1991. Unfortunately, all four of the tracks on it are rather inessential. “Dials”, the b-side of the "Heaven or Las Vegas" single, and “The High Monkey-Monk”, from a Melody Maker compilation in 1990, both feature great production, but are fairly sparse and open. They sound like second-rate b-sides. “Crushed”, from the Lonely Is an Eyesore compilation in 1987, fits in with Love’s Easy Tears or Blue Bell Knoll, but doesn’t quite match either. It’s the best of the bonus disc, but merely a chill, pleasant stroll. The instrumental version of “Oomingmak” is airy and pretty but offers nothing over the original from Victorialand.

The last stray track is “Millimillenary”, originally from the NME Department of Enjoyment cassette in 1984, but also available on The Pink Opaque best-of in 1986. It’s as strong as the best of Treasure or maybe even The Spangle Maker. It’s less experimental and unusually straightforward and classic pop oriented in its arrangement and structure, but it completely works. It also reminds me of contemporaneous output from The Cure.

Cocteau Twins released some incredible albums in their day, but their run of EPs from Sunburst and Snowblind through Love’s Easy Tears gives even Heaven or Las Vegas a run for its money. This collection is unbeatable in terms of the variety of sounds, mood, and atmospheres. After going on hiatus for a couple years after that album and the ground covered by this compilation, they returned to release another series of EPs and singles (compiled on the second volume of Lullabies to Violaine) alongside two more albums (all compiled on the Treasure Hiding compilation), but they never again quite reached these heights. At least we have this wonderful collection that nicely assembles their finest glories.

Lullabies to Violaine, Volume 1: A
Lullabies EP: B-
Peppermint Pig EP: C-
Sunburst and Snowblind EP: B+
The Spangle Maker EP: A+
Aikea-Guinea EP: A+
Tiny Dynamine EP: A-
Echoes in a Shallow Bay EP: B
Love’s Easy Tears EP: A+
"Iceblink Luck" single: B-
Cocteau Twins Singles Collection Disc 10: C
“Millimillenary”: A-