The Scottish rock band recorded Garlands, their first album, in 1992. This album differs from pop rock in ways you might not expect. Notice the drum machine for one. Also notice the way this album is recorded. It was recorded with a basic technique. Sounding like a live version recorded from a single microphone, this technique would later influence the band Curve's Doppleganger. In both cases, the bands abandoned that kind of sound for something slicker, more technically challenging and less like live music. Last, the band had a member on their first album, Will Hegge, who played bass. His bass sounds like a Rickenbacker, but regardless of what brand it is, he gets an urgent, dark sound out of it. He sets the tempo and compliments the melody of the songs very well, especially on the college radio favorite "Wax and Wane." He would leave the band to join Cabaret Voltaire, a band more fitting for his dark style. A band he would not overpower with his assertive manner of playing.
Then the Twins released their second effort Head Over Heels recorded in 1983. It lacked the frontal assault of the first album, lacked the melodic dark creations that made Garlands so unique. This second album became their weakest album and while a lot of bands would split up over such a disappointing recording, the Twins believed in themselves, and knew what a special musical rapport they had with each other. Despite the letdown, another college radio hit emerged from the album called "Sugar Hiccup." This song made it known that greater music loomed ahead in the future for the Cocteau Twins. The song is long and repetitive, but so was "Wax and Wane" off Garlands. What salvaged the disappointing Head Over Heels was Guthrie's guitar work and the desolate, terrifyingly powerful voice of Elizabeth Fraser. Put together, the sound was inspiring and intelligent. . Simon was new to the band and had not matured as much as the other two. But that would change fast.
The Twins frequently released EP's in which they were able to experiment and evolve. Therefore, their full-length albums were more informed and authoritative. Then the band could deliver a true practiced work of art. That is how I view this band. They are an art band from Scotland. No two people are going to hear their music the same way. A more affordable way to get the EP's all at once exists, rather than buying them separate. Merely purchase the two double-albums called From Lullabies to Violane vol I and II. You need not listen to the EP's to appreciate the band, but if you fall in love with them, you will feel compelled to do so. If you listen to the next album by the Twins, Treasure, you will probably fall in love with them. In this album, the Twins demonstrate measured unity between band members. Guthrie's guitar spits out electronic feedback that are actual notes and sound intimate despite the remote element technology often brings. Yes, there are still some electronic drums. A very romantic feeling can be drawn from the music so that by this third album, the band has reached a plateau that cannot be improved upon. They can only explore different musical landscapes from that point on.
One such landscape bears fruit in their fourth album Victorialand. This album, like Head over Heels, is a transitional album but succeeds where Head over Heels did not. The musicians are more expert, the recording technique is more polished than in Treasure, the preceding album. The music is dreamy and what many call "shimmering" is beginning to show through in this release for the first time. The more synthesized sound changes the band into the middle period. The period in which their art takes a less prominent role than in Treasure and into a more commercial sweet sound, did not really catch on too much in this country at least. If you like the older music better because of its straightforward artistic bent, you may want to save on buying the albums and EPs and instead get the import compilation called The Pink Opaque. It selectively covers everything up to Victorialand.
After Victorialand, the Twins collaborated with the Ambient music giant, Harold Budd. If you are a Twins fanatic, by all means add it to your collection. I do not recommend this to just anyone though. The songs sound more like filler and they never seem comfortable out of their element. If you are a Harold Budd fan, you will definitely want to check it out. It is dreamy, slow electronic music. I am not going to say much more about it except to say that this album, The Moon and the Melodies might make casual Cocteau Twins fans cringe. The solo work and collaborations of Twin's guitarist, Robin Guthrie, explore extensive electronic methods of recording. I would recommend Guthrie's albums other than The Moon and the Melodies. Even This Mortal Coil collababorations with the Twins have more appeal if a person likes goth that is artistic. TMC albums are more in line with the first three Twin's albums.
Several years after Victorialand, the band released an album, Blue Bell Knoll. You will not find Elizabeth Fraser singing any better than she does on this. You will find a highly technical style of recording that is sophisticated beyond belief. This album has the structure of Treasure only with beauty and grace. The darkness of past albums gives way to heavenly accents. It literally sounds as though it came from another world. Try to understand how much distance the band went from Garlands to Blue Bell Knoll. Great mystery gives birth to this recording. I think this one often gets overlooked. I rate it slightly lower than Treasure, but closer than all the others. The variation in the songs' tempo changes add to the contrast of changes in their other albums' tempos. As a result, we can listen to a Twin's album that connects better to the listener.
Then we come to the album that is probably the best known in the U.S. -- Heaven or Las Vegas -- their first album with Capital Records. It finds a niche entirely to itself in modern rock with an undeniable masterpiece of composition and studio work. Even Blue Bell Knoll pales in comparison with this most sophisticated album the Twins ever recorded. The music on Heaven or Las Vegas is breathtaking. The instruments sound through-composed, complimenting each other so well and again the synthesized sound is maxed out even by Twin's standards. The album towers over us, larger than life, but less artistic. It contains a million studio gimmicks. This soundscape gets the Twins in over their own heads a little. The guitar sounds as if sparks are flying off in all directions. The vocals sound like fuzzy echos with really fantastic harmony parts. And the bass plods along, jumping up and down the scales, bending and blending. That is how I would describe what the band does on this album: they blend in a mixture of what is genius and outlandish.
After the release of Heaven or Las Vegas, the Twins enter their latter period. The period of decline and fall. No one likes for it to happen, but we are all powerless to stop it, inevitably. In 1993, the Twins released Four Calendar Cafe. We hear in it a production stripped down to the bone. Only the last song, "Pur", has some teeth in it. The rest prove minimalistic, more intimate and less domineering than any other recording they ever did -- the opposite of the extravagence of Heaven or Las Vegas. In this uncomplicated and relaxing album, Guthrie at times plays an instrument that sounds much like a steel guitar. Elizabeth's voice hasn't sounded this clear since the early days, if then even. The musicianship remains outstanding and the songs are not bad either, but where went the art to? That is the question.
The answer to the question may be found on their final album Milk and Kisses. The Twins return to a more artistic approach. And a dark approach it is. The previous recording, Four Calendar Cafe had no trace of darkness within. Milk and Kisses closely identifies with darkness. Maybe Fraser's vocals suffer from too much electronic treatment. The guitar sets a pleasing backdrop at times and other times spastic. The bass hits the target for the most part, though. The sound is more synthesized than Four Calendar Cafe, but has more balance. Weak songs kill Milk and Kisses dead in it's tracks. Compare these compositions to songs on their other albums. They sound less like themselves on this recording. The first song creates a good impression and hearkens back to their former days of glory. The rest strike us as mediocre, and mediocre is something the Cocteau Twins have never been since Head Over Heels. Supposedly, the Twins did not tour after making this last record to fulfill their contract obligation. I do not blame them. But even this album is pretty good when you compare it with other bands'. It's just that we expect more from the Twins. Their odyssey through the musical world spanned one and a half very productive decades. While all around them, musical taste was changing rapidly, the Twins remained true to their original identity though it took different forms to reveal and express themselves. I will always be grateful to them for being true to their art from their inception to their demise with few exceptions. What was first and foremost to them pleased the fans.
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