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-

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