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Non-Prog CD Reviews

Cocteau Twins

Four-Calendar Café

Review by Bruce Stringer

The Cocteau Twins were the accessible bridge between the Goth / Art sound of (early) Cure, Dead Can Dance, et al and the world of 80’s pop, spawning numerous clones and would-be sound-a-likes the world over. For those who have never heard of this cult act or 4AD (the label they helped establish at the forefront of the new music revolution of that time) then they may know of Liz Fraser’s incredible vocal performance on Massive Attack’s hit single “Teardrop” from the TV series “House”. Fraser, Scotland’s answer to a thinking person’s version of (and precursor to) Sinead O’Connor and the lyrical equivalent to Mensa in coded Gaelic, Olde English, French, etc, was one third of the Cocteau Twins as was guitarist-composer-producer, Robin Guthrie, also her long term partner. 

Four-Calendar Café was the first release after the band’s split with 4AD and has a poppier influence than previous works, but is a next logical step from the exceptional Heaven Or Las Vegas album. Recorded before signing their major label deal with Fontana at the band’s studio, September Sound – the Cocteau Twins’ fan’s equivalent to Graceland – the album was also one step closer to the band’s demise.

Guthrie’s re-mastering of this classic Goth-Pop CD has brought new life to the music, which was more commercial than Goth-inspired. Although the original tapes were obviously not recorded with intention for digital mastering, it seems that Guthrie has opted for a balanced mid-frequency clean up than the usual high-end push of the notches into the headache spectrum.

Robin Guthrie has brought many of the nuances that may have been missing in the vinyl masters to the fore. His ear has deliberate tendencies so you don’t end up with a guitarist’s mix or a drummer’s mix. Balance is the key and he has achieved so much on a sonic level that there seem to be new things to find upon each listen. The album was recorded at September Sound, which has its own unique presence and, although it may not be a massive Abbey Road Studios work over re-master job, it is a gem unto itself.

Sadly, this album would be the last but one. Drug use had created a divide and the Cocteau Twins functioned on unsteady footing. During the tour for this album, Fraser was romantically linked to Jeff Buckley, which apparently had an effect on her with regards experimenting live with her vocal lines. Some fans became confused at her use of other song lyrics and improvisation but, with the inevitable downfall of the group, this seems to be just one sign that things were not at all okay within the band’s camp.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2008  Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Know Who You Are At Every Age
This song was covered by Chinese über-pint-sized singing sensation Faye Wong back in 1994 (along with “Bluebeard”) and offered an interesting insight into what would ironically be a track that a listener could actually decipher, with regards lyrics. The lush acoustic guitar fills the mix in a way more obvious than previous Cocteau Twins songs and there seems to be an almost bongo-driven percussive element that might seem somehow out of place alongside the band’s classic songs. The melodies are quite moving and the unsettling feeling that one might have seen to pervade every nuance of the mix. This could be an echo of what to expect from their next album opener, “Violaine,” which acts as a harsher, rockier induction to “Milk & Kisses.” In many ways this is a great example of how good the trio were prior to their eventual split.
Evangeline
Selected as the band’s first single off the album, Evangeline takes advantage of the luscious clean studio production sounds. A slight holdback after such a big start to the album, “Evangeline” is much slower, broader and dreamlike. The delays and reverbs create their own texture along with various guitar and electronic effects that pad out the song. The bridge section leans back to a more familiar sound but the spread is truly defined early on. An apparent fan favorite, the new, crisp sound is incredibly clean and luscious.
Bluebeard
Probably the most commercial track on the CD, “Bluebeard” has a mild country flavor and is such a departure from the old sound that one might be mistaken that this was a new band. You can actually hear the chorus lyrics: “Are you the right man for me…?,” where once upon a Twins’ album you’d be hard pressed to decipher anything at all. The multi-layered vocals are great and Guthrie’s 50’s style guitar fills are very cool, indeed. The vocal break gives the fan an up close intimacy with Fraser in full speaker spread. Simon Raymonde, as always, plays so tight to the requirement of the song that you almost forget that he’s there – the mark of a great bass player. This was covered by Faye Wong in Cantonese and even made it to her live VCD release.
Theft, And Wondering Around Lost
Being a bass driven piece (and not to underplay Guthrie’s prodigal role), this is an excellent opportunity to see into the flawless mind of Simon Raymonde. He has the innate ability to underscore the vocal passages without ever overtaking or clashing with Fraser’s operatic themes. Guthrie plays whammy bar chords that seem to offer him more freedom and give him a back seat in the mix. This is by far one of the album’s highlights and seems to build with each new vocal melody.
Oil Of Angels
The drum tracks begin with a brushed snare sound, something that one might not expect from these guys. The song is, once again, light and fluffy and seems to be an interesting vehicle for Fraser’s vocal acrobatics. The guitar sound is very Strat-like, but – like the bass – never pushes itself on the mix in any overbearing way. There is an oddly out of place synthesizer solo that, to me, distracts from where the song seems to go. Although a nice album track, I often felt that there were better non-album tracks that could have been utilized in place of this.
Squeeze Wax
Sounding much like the album opener, “Squeeze Wax” begins like another big acoustic pop song, but the verses take the song in a totally different direction with some subtly placed vocal harmonies and a syncopated guitar part. There is some nice tremolo guitar that plays under the chorus giving the song a shimmering, almost haunting effect. Fraser applies her operatic talents to lift the mood in much the same way that she used them with later songs like “Seekers Who Are Lovers” from Milk & Kisses.
My Truth
An excellent updated return to the old Cocteau sound with Casio-style percussion, jangly guitars and smooth, ethereal vocals, “My Truth” is probably what the more critical fans were hoping for when they first heard the album. The clean-up process has brought forward some of the more interesting layers in the vocal mix and Simon’s bass stands out with his chordal strumming. Like any great Twins song it ends way too early and leaves you hanging for more.
Essence
“Essence” is as pure as the driven compressed guitar; the lush nature of the big wall of reverbs and delays takes on a life of its own. There is a heartbeat that acts as a pseudo metronome, but otherwise this track relies on no real percussion or drum beat. It’s a great way to break up the album and serves as a catalyst to deliver the heavier counterpart that is “Summerhead.”
Summerhead
By far my favorite track on Four-Calendar Café, “Summerhead” is the closest one might hear to rock from the Twins. The bass line acts as a harmony to the vocal line and the guitars are arpeggiated, whammied and slap-back reverbed into a not so subtle oblivion. Fraser sings quite light considering the loudness of the track but it seems to be this juxtaposition of unique elements that work together to create something so grand. It seems ironic that, with all of the problems within the group at the time, they could band together to create something so tight and bonded.
Pur
Lush and graceful, “Pur” closes the album as a light and fluffy number, wandering this way and that. With the tradition of closing their albums with longer, more experimental pieces the Cocteau Twins have produced an all-out assault with the ferocity of a heavenly blessed pillow. Being the longest track on the album it is no wonder it develops over time and goes through movements that sound much like its sister song, “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires,” from the previous album. Tracks like this, “My Truth” and “Summerhead” seem more like the Twins of old and is a nice ending to the CD.
 
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