Cocteau Twins created a world of their own making and soundtracked it with some of the most perfect music ever recorded. Banjo looks into their essential releases and reports back
Cocteau Twins are a that rarest of things, a unique band; a popular, critically acclaimed, successful group who have never had real imitators.
This is, in no small part, due to the fact that vocalist Elizabeth Fraser’s voice is a one-off. No amount of training or practicing can reproduce the otherworldly sounds that she managed with such ease.
Cocteau Twins were one of the three major acts of 80s Indie. Alongside The Smiths and New Order, Cocteau Twins sound helped define the decade’s alternative profile.
Their sound was so different, delicate and expansive that reviewers were forced into superlatives to describe what they were hearing. The phrase ‘sonic cathedrals’ was coined to define the Cocteau Twins live, while Fraser’s voice was described as ‘the voice of god’.
Cocteau Twins arrived fully formed from the off. Their first release was their debut album, 1982’s Garlands, on 4AD records and critical acclaim was instant. Their sound was often compared to Siouxsie and the Banshees, but in reality there was little similarity between the two.
Garlands consisted of a drum machine, chorus-laden bass & guitars and Liz Frazer’s extraordinary vocals. Their sound at the time was fairly abrasive and definitely leaning towards goth territory
By the time it came to record album number two however, things had changed. Original bassist Will Heggie had left, so Fraser and guitarist Robin Guthrie chose to record Head Over Heels as a duo.
Without the anchoring effects of Heggie’s bass, Guthrie’s guitar was free to fly, and fly it did. Frazer also rose to the challenge and her vocals changed completely from Garlands. For the first time the world was given a taste of just how singular a talent she was becoming.
Cocteau Twins’ sound became multi layered. Unusually, and most notably, this happened with the vocals. As an example, I wear Your Ring from Heaven or Las Vegas features a double tracked lead vocal, a double tracked harmony, a second vocal line and a falsetto line soaring over the top. This, added to Guthrie’s’ effects heavy overdubbed guitars and Simon Raymonde’s strummed bass chords gave the band their signature sound.
Fraser’s lyrics, although gloriously sang, were often abstract and minimal and contained words that she had invented. The lyrics for Love Paramour consist basically of just two sentences, “Two different fates, my love paramour ooze out and away. Two different fates they fig up my love, ooze out and away onehow”
As time progressed, she turned to glossolalia, where she vocalised sounds rather than sang words. As she struggled to write lyrics, glossolalia became the best way for her to express herself as a vocalist, the sounds she made still conveying her emotions exquisitely.
The end came for Cocteau Twins when Guthrie and Fraser split up after a relationship lasting thirteen years. In fact, contractual obligations kept the band together for longer than was good for them and their demise, when it came, was probably a merciful release for all.
Then, in 2005, an announcement was made Cocteau Twins would reform for an appearance at Coachella and a world tour, rumoured to be worth £1.5 million each. But just weeks later, Fraser decided that she could not take part, unable to face the prospect of being in such close contact with her ex partner Guthrie.
Fraser now finds it difficult to even think of her bandmates, saying “They were my life. And when you’re in something that deeply, you have to remove yourself completely.”
These days Raymonde runs the Bella Union label and Guthrie has released a series of excellent albums and EPs. It is rumoured that Fraser has recorded an album’s worth of material, but it is unlikely to ever see the light of day as her perfectionist self-critical approach seems to stop her thinking anything she records is good enough to be heard by the public.
While this means that the world is likely to be denied new material from one of the best bands and most astonishing voices of our generation, we at least have the extraordinary body of work they have left behind.
And so, we present a buyer’s guide to take you through the shimmering tower of majesty that is the Cocteau Twins.
Blue Bell Knoll (1988)
To delve into the otherworld of Cocteau Twins music, we recommend that you start with their 5th album, Blue Bell Knoll. The opening title track starts with a harp-like arpeggio before Frazer’s sublime vocal glides in. An echoing drum machine provides a beat of sorts and, together with Guthrie’s processed guitars and Raymonde’s strummed bass chords give us the Cocteau’s sound in all its glory.
Fraser’s intangible lyrics and glossolalia works perfectly with the music, her voice being used as an instrument and floating on top of the music. It is no wonder that the descriptions mentioned above were coined to describe Cocteau Twins’ sound, they do not make ordinary music and ordinary language cannot adequately be used to describe them.
Song titles were another part of Cocteau Twins milieu, and Blue Bell Knoll contains songs titled The Itchy Glowbo Blow, A Kissed Out Red Floatboat and For Phoebe Still a Baby. Not that there is a sense of tweeness or cutesiness about any of these songs, they are epic in scale and sound, no other band before or since has achieved such beauty so effortlessly.
Carolyn’s Fingers is archetypal Cocteau Twins and sums up everything that is wonderful about them. Listened to separately, the constituent parts of this song – the minimally picked guitar, the bass chords and the indecipherable lyrics – it is difficult to think how they could be put together in a way that makes such glorious song. Part of the magic of Cocteau Twins songs is that they are somehow, magically, more than the sum of their parts.
Fraser may have all but abandoned words, but her knack of creating haunting vocal lines that could get under your skin and into your soul remain unsurpassed. There is a delicate melancholy to her voice that adds to the songs allure immeasurably.
With not a single moment on the whole album that is less than magical, Blue Bell Knoll is the perfect introduction to the singular talents of this band.
Heaven Or Las Vegas (1990)
Although Heaven or Las Vegas followed Blue Bell Knoll, the two albums are poles apart. Much happened to the band prior to and during the recording if this album, Guthrie had fallen into drug dependency, straining his relationship with Fraser, the two of them became parents to a daughter, Lucy Belle and Raymonde‘s father passed away.
In this heightened atmosphere, Cocteau Twins produced what is widely regarded as their masterpiece, with its twin themes of birth and death.
Heaven or Las Vegas finds Fraser at her most literate and lyrical, singing actual words again, although they remain obscure at best. Inspired by the birth of her daughter, Fraser allegedly sings in Pitch the Baby ‘Pitch the baby should be their murmur, slip me home as we seal us in you and that land which one dresh are leaving‘
What the actual meaning of it actually is is hard to say. These may well be the song’s lyrics, but it is easy to form the opinion the she was using words in a similar way to how an artist uses colour; to give an impression of life rather than pin it down and define it.
Iceblink Luck is perhaps a little more straightforward, when Fraser sings ‘I’m happy again, caught, caught in time. Expose the daughter of yourself well me, I think that you’re in her heart‘ although it is far from straightforward.
But to focus on the lyrics of the Cocteau Twins records is to miss the point. There is magic to be found in the interweaving vocals of I Wear Your Ring and in the sheer heart-skips-a-beat joy of Fotzepolitic.
Wolf in the Breast again shows how all the intricate parts of the musicians involved mesh together to create something perfect, something other.
Heaven or Las Vegas proves that when Cocteau Twins were on this kind of form they could make music without equal.
Head Over Heels (1983)
On album two, Cocteau Twins had quicky moved on from the sound captured on their debut album, discussed below. Whereas their debut was gothy post punk, on Head Over Heels they created the building blocks of the sound that would come to define them.
As mentioned above, after losing original bass player Will Heggie, Cocteau Twins soared as if they were set free without an anchor.
Opening track When Mama Was Moth starts with drum machine beats, with huge amounts of reverb and decay giving them a far away, expansive sound. Then in comes Guthrie‘s guitar, swathed in effects and almost unrecognisable as a guitar at all. Fraser‘s vocals arrive and instantly we have Cocteau Twins as we know and love them.
The songs on Head Over Heels are rich in atmosphere, it is no surprise that David Lynch loved their music.
Sugar Hiccup sees the band stray into major scale terriotory and has an uplifitng glory. Fraser‘s lyrics add to the song’s simplistic appeal – it seems Cocteau Twins could give us pop music when they wanted.
Elsewhere the album heads back to atmospheric epics .Multifoiled offers us a skewed take on the blues while closer Musette and Drums bring the album to a suitably anthemic close.
It is hard to think of a comparable leap from album one to album two from any other band. Cocteau Twins had staked their claim on their future.
Treasure, Cocteau Twins third album, saw them develop further. With the addition of Simon Raymonde on bass, the classic line up had arrived.
Songs on Treasure are assigned names rather than titles. First track Ivo is names after Ivo Watts-Russell, founder of Cocteau Twins record label 4AD. Not that you would be able to tell by the lyrics; ‘With the part animal, peep-oh, peach blow, Pandora, Pompadour. Pale leaf, pink sweet, Persephone, Near our ivo
peep peep-oh, bit animal, peep peep‘
Treasure is a calmer affair than previous albums, Acoustic guitars make an appearance and there is less dependence on effects than before. Otterly is almost a chill out track and wouldn’t sound out of place on a Cafe Del Mar album.
Standout track Lorelei is perhaps the song that most encapsulates Cocteau Twins. All elements that make up their unique sound are present here.
Serene and sublime, Treasure is precisely what it says it is.
Four Calendar Cafe (1993)
Four Calendar Cafe is perhaps Cocteau Twins most ‘accessible’ album, by which we mean that songs largely conform to more usual verse/chorus structures, guitars sound like guitars and Liz Fraser sings lyrics that can be read away from the songs.
Lead single Evangeline is a quite beautiful look at growing up, with the lyrics ‘I had to fantasize I was a princess, mum and dad were queen and king. I ought to have what feeling? I see me as other people see me.’
It is quite jarring to hear Fraser sing such open and understandable lyrics after years of words taking a backseat to emotion or feelings, but it works beautifully.
Bluebeard finds her wondering ‘Are you the right man for me? Are you safe, are you my friend?‘ and it is easy to find evidence of the end of the relationship breakdown that would spell the band’s end.
Where it all started. Garlands was not just Cocteau Twins debut album, it was the first thing they released. No build up, no letting us know what was going on with a single or two, just boom! It instantly attracted fans and put the band in the indie charts.
Looking back on it now, it seems a strange way for them to start. In comparison to the glories that were to come, Garlands sounds a little basic. All the elements of Cocteau Twins are present and correct, but there was finessing to do.
Not that Garlands isn’t a great album, it certainly is, but it is easy to overlook it given what was to come. When it was released, it was claimed that Cocteau Twins were Banshees copyists, Liz Fraser even had a Siouxsie tattoo that she later had lasered off.
But this lazy comparison is neither fair nor accurate, there was something unique going on here even at this early stage.
Bass and guitar parts are all fairly unconventional in a true post-punk manner and Fraser‘s vocal performance marked her out as a real talent even then.
I well remember the excitement this album generated amongst my friends on its release, as we all fell for Cocteau Twins and started a love affair that was going to stay with us until the end.
It may sound a little basic, a bit rough around the edges, but no Cocteau Twins collection would be complete without this rough diamond.
So what is Cocteau Twins legacy? Other bands may not have been able to imitate the magic they created, but their influence has been obvious. The effects heavy guitar scene of Shoegazing that gave rise to the likes of Slowdive and Ride obviously owes them a great debt, as does the loosely categorised Dream Pop genre, which captures acts such as Galaxie 500 and Sigur Ros.
But their biggest legacy is what we have just been looking at, a run of albums that stand alone, testament to a unique and wonderful band who made music like no other.
In music we need people who are able to develop their own strand of musical DNA, who can bloom almost in isolation and yet still come to define their age.
Cocteau Twins sound as if they evolved on some kind of musical Galapagos islands where, cut off from the rest of the world, they developed their own strange way of doing things, evolved beautiful feathers and strange instincts that set them apart from the mainland.
And, in an age of identikit bands and singers, this makes them more special, more needed and more valuable than ever.