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Non-Prog CD Reviews

Cocteau Twins

Lullabies To Violaine - Volume 1

Review by Bruce Stringer

Subtitled “Singles and Extended Plays,” this two part compendium of the Cocteau Twins EP’s, 7” and 12”releases, Lullabies To Violaine is a much-needed collection for the fan who missed out on any of the rarities that were released between albums. Much of what the group stood for could be summarized by the experimental nature of the EPs and it is here – for the first time – that the music can be viewed in a linear, chronological order. There are intrinsic differences in production styles during this period 1982 to 1990 and one can see how the groupings were done for each EP, 12” or 7”release, which is where the magic is in a release like this.

This set covers the 4AD era (- Volume 2 carries on up to their last single releases for Fontana) and showcases the experimental side of this highly influential British threesome. Quality-wise, the re-mastering has managed to recapture the essence and drive of the original releases, making each song compatible in volume and tonal distinction. The classic art look of the past is reinvented for the CD cover, thanks to Vaughan Oliver of V23, and in typical 4AD style there is very little info that isn’t “need to know”and, of course, there are no band pictures.

This CD collection includes songs that most Cocteau Twins fans would already have on other formats but listening to these tracks in a linear fashion offers an insight into the development and subsequent movements of the band’s compositional expertise and production savvy. The digital mastering by Robin Guthrie is, as always, “of the nature” of the music as opposed to simply pushing the tops and bottoms up with a bit of compression thrown in. It is, although, a sad document of how great acts can be ahead of their time, under-appreciated by their record companies and tending to internal self combustion. Lullabies To Violaine is a necessary inclusion for the fan who wants to hear what this amazing band did between albums.

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
Disc 1
Feathers-Oar-Blades
From 1982’s Lullabies and featuring original bass player, Will Heggie, the material is reminiscent of the Garlands album, although with a rockier sentimentality. At a stage in music where a drum machine might have seemed an appropriate technological step in the right direction there were very few acts that now don’t sound outdated. The Cocteau Twins have an immediate balance between composition and overall sound that make the electronic drums seem somehow in-place to the point where one might find it hard to imagine the group without one. Tracks like this have an ability to draw the listener into a Gothic sub-reality that underlies much of the Twins’ earlier music.
Alas Dies Laughing
Sounding more like auditory echoes of a bad dream than a song, it is this doominess that many would recall from the dark days of the early 80’s with bands such as The Cure and Dead Can Dance. Robin Guthrie’s spacey effects lead the track into the absorbing and somewhat disturbing vibrato leanings of Liz Fraser’s voice. Moving through a semi-tonal song structure, the tension of “Alas…” is nightmarish and unsettling… in a nice way.

It’s All but an Ark Lark
With a lengthy intro of sound effects this would seem a likely number in the progression. This time the thematic passages take the listener through an almost tribal rhythm with hints at both the rockier and the disturbing. Fraser attempts vocal acrobatics with multiple overdubs as Will Heggie’s punchy bass work underpins Guthrie’s sonic onslaught with scratchy guitar. After a false ending and more dynamic abuse the listener is freed at the 8-minute mark.

Peppermint Pig (7” version)
Guthrie manages to execute some most oriental chord work on his tortured axe (very similar to that found in “Hong Kong Garden” by Souxsie and The Banshees) which takes “Peppermint Pig” into a kind of psycho-pop dimension. Heggie’s continuous bass playing is on another level – chords, riffy lines and plucked staccato notes – as much of the composition is held together by his playing. There are some highly operatic illusions in the background behind the middle theme which goes to show that, no matter how much the Cocteau Twins have shied away from the tags of musicians, they were incredible arrangers of the sublime. The ending employs a straight stop with some bleeding flange
Laughlines
Tight and taut, this triplet number in 12/8 has some interesting percussive moments with an almost classical theme where the drums fade away momentarily. Fraser’s voice is effect-laden and haunting, as the decoding of her lyrics offers no peace to the listener. The guitar work is constant and hallucinatory. There is an interesting pop ending to what is a relentlessly hard and dark piece.
Hazel
Fraser’s repetition of words / sounds / syllables overshadows the, once again, tribal nature of the track but it is actually the difference in production sound that really highlights “Hazel.” More oriental guitars within an almost middle-eastern progression make for an interesting dynamic. The drum machine and bass take the number out leaving the listener without a sense of resolve. Whether calculated or not, it is this element that defines much of the early Cocteau sound.
Sugar Hiccup (12” version)
“Sugar Hiccup” from the famed Sunburst and Snowblind EP hints at the poppier element that the band would gravitate towards in later years. At this stage, the Twins were without a bass player. Fraser’s lush vocal stylings were being employed in a more commercial setting and the arrangement contains lush piano backing with some synth layering. There is an unfortunate quick fade at the 3:30 mark which is simply too obvious and, sadly, deters the listener from the brilliance of the song.
From the Flagstones
Yet another production piece, the percussion is less up front in the mix and the lush, spacious characteristics of the number shine through. There is evidence of excursions into key changes that allow Fraser some interesting dual vocal moments. The synthesizer is in use to stunning effect making “…Flagstones” part of a classic Twins step in musical evolution.
Hitherto
Back to a more depressing sentiment, the chorus is highlighted by Guthrie’s pitch-shift guitar that sounds strangely out of place yet apt to the feeling of the track. Interestingly, there is a chordal bass line that runs beneath with synth bass highlighting areas of listener focus. As per the line-up of this EP, there seems to be a variance in song writing that would indicate (a) outstanding compositional skills, (b) excellent arranging abilities, and (c) the ability to extend the technology at hand to work within the song structure and not the other way around.
Because of Whirl-Jack
This would definitely go in my top 10 Cocteau Twins basket. It’s got a cool mixture of piano, synth bass and jangly guitar rhythms and is more commercial in that it sounds almost like a rock song. The pace is defined by the straight drumming and Fraser is all over the moody melodies in a way not often heard. “Because of Whirl-Jack” is great fun and is, for me, what makes “Sunburst and Snowblind” so good!
The Spangle Maker
From the 1984 EP of the same name and featuring Simon Raymonde on bass duties, the band sound totally different. The elements seem somehow skewed. Guthrie now employs his over-effected dive bombs in a more obvious context leaving more space in the backing music, which is only truly resolved in the latter half. There seems to be a slight lack of direction but this is what one might expect from the experimental nature of the releases that this CD collection covers.
Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops (alternate version)
Departing from the moodier atmosphere of previous work, this is pure light pop with a Cocteau twist. The synthesizer has an overbearing tonal quality but this was probably the rage in 1984… This isn’t a favourite EP of mine, though there are some interesting highlights.

Pepper-Tree
Thankfully, “Pepper-Tree” is a return to the serious side of the trio and sees the sound return to basics with guitar, bass, piano and drum machine to support Fraser’s vocal habit. The haunting nature of this track is what Cocteau Twins fans relate to and, I suppose, is what I’d hoped to find more of. The ticking grandfather clock makes a nice ending.
Aikea-Guinea (alternate version)
March 1985 saw the release of the “Aikea-Guinea” 12” and this alternate version of the track is a giant leap forward from “The Spangle Maker.” The mix is thoughtful and the arrangement is stunning as the band work with what I can only describe as a form of synchronicity or band chemistry. There seems to be a definition in Fraser’s vocals that was earlier hidden. Guthrie’s guitars appear where they are needed and do not infringe on the sonic padding. Simon Raymonde’s tasteful bass playing is so good that it is obvious where his talents lie within the band as an arranger.
Kookaburra
Big sounds and luscious spacial effects abound in this commercial number with understated elegance in its grandiose pop stature. Vocally, the reverb hides much of the definition, which adds to the subtle mixture of sounds. Guthrie plucks away at a far off arpeggio before smashing some big, Alex Lifeson-esque chords in through the speakers, into existence. The bass playing follows the harmonic direction of the voice and continues the Raymonde school of how to play Goth-Pop bass.
Quisquose
What sounds like nylon stringed acoustic guitar accompanies some absorbing piano work. Fraser moves beyond all keys as she bursts out before melodically accompanying herself during the chorus. Guthrie’s use of pitch and effected guitars is what makes him a pioneer in sonic ambience. It would seem that the final product is greater than the sum of the parts where this trio is concerned.
Rococo
Lightly, ever quietly, Simon plays along with the obligatory drum machine easing the listener into a false sense of comfort. But before long this lullaby explodes into a cacophony of sonic overstatement. Loud guitars verge on the ear splitting and the brooding synth-bass pumps along propelling Guthrie into an all-out assault on the senses. I can’t imagine there would be many other bands able to rock out over a drum machine / Casio percussion track, but these guys do and get away with it. This is an instrumental number, so Fraser does not appear.
Disc 2
Pink Orange Red
Tiny Dynamine, an EP that marked a return to the lush ultra-wall of sound for which Guthrie is best known, has a very open ended moodiness that captures a dreamy quality. Fraser’s voice is suitably enigmatic in sound and lyrical content and the haunting nature of “Pink Orange Red” has the ability to stay with the listener long after the song is over.
Ribbed And Veined
An interesting harmonic guitar melody plays over a synthetic percussion beat with the occasional movement that undermines the slight jazz influence. The piano parts divide with a hint of a chorus but within a totally instrumental framework. Nice piece and something that one might imagine lengthier excursions within a live setting.
Plain Tiger
Moody and dark, “Plain Tiger” has an unsettling brooding quality. Fraser has multi-tracked vocal moments that are quite unnerving to the senses as the droning bass anchors itself in the black void. Ironically, it does seem to be Guthrie’s role to act as the instrumental lead in stripping away the depressive nature of particular songs and bringing a brighter sunrise to the overcast fields of the Cocteau dreamscape.
Sultitan Itan
Poppier and bouncing along at a head-nodding pace (in 12/8), Guthrie’s guitar playing sounds more like that of The Shadows’ Hank Marvin than Goth / psych-pop anti-hero. Fraser outbursts are nightmarish – even in a more positive composition like this and there are infrequent glimpses of words that stand out but still baffle the decoder. The programmed drums are very 80’s but are apt to the nature of what the Twins’ sound was all about.
Great Spangled Fritillary
Echoes In A Shallow Bay, released in October 1985, was the third EP cut loose in that year and was probably the best produced. The arrangement of this track, in particular, has Fraser multi-tracking herself with descending passages over modulating guitars and subtle bass playing. There seems to be a psychological barrier overtaken with the band at this point, as the effortlessness of the songs defy the complexity of the chemistry. The trio appear to be at ease with each other and working on far more than the sum of the parts. “Great Spangled Fritillary” is a great opener for the EP.
Melonella
Whether the lyrics are in Gaelic, Latin or Pig English, Fraser really outdoes herself with her vocal performance standing out. Her cryptic abilities make for compelling listening as the band has a more scaled down, yet larger and open, sound. This is great track to let loose in your subconscious and see what happens and pure classic Cocteau Twins!

Pale Clouded White
Still yards ahead with production sound and arrangement, this has a disquieting quality that is created by the piano and acoustic guitars working against the descending key-defying vocals. Again, there is simplicity in the mix that allows the spooky Guthrie guitar acrobatics to haunt in a way reminiscent of the Dif Juz guitar work. For the Twins this is a rather long song, clocking in at the 5-minute mark.
Eggs and Their Shells
Another instant classic, Fraser’s vocal melodies and backing harmonies make for a radio friendly product. It’s interesting how tracks like this have made the EPs by the band so collectable. Based on the 3 other songs that make up “Echoes In A Shallow Bay” it would have been interesting to see how far the group could have pushed the limits if they had continued by working towards an album with this vibe.
Love’s Easy Tears
From the EP of the same name, this song is pop but with some cool 50’s style guitar sounds. The production is different to the previous releases and, although a minor step back, it still has the chemistry that makes the trio sound so good. It’s not my favourite song but working towards a theme.

Those Eyes, That Mouth
With a triplet beat and some arpeggiated guitar chords, there are at least two Fraser vocal parts that work together in a compositional sense that could only be done by her. It would be interesting to hear a song like this live to see what she might do to alleviate the extra passages. Guthrie’s guitar is the constant as he plucks away through the duration of the 3:36.
Sigh’s Smell of Farewell
This song is very similar to a track called “Crushed” from the 4AD compilation, Lonely Is An Eyesore, which boasts very similar jangly chord work and phasing effects on the mix. I prefer “Crushed” as it’s what I discovered first but this is a very interesting peak into the workings of a band unit that constantly progressed old and new ideas to the outer limits of the music spectrum.
Orange Appled
This EP would be the band’s last for 4 years, until the 1990 release of Iceblink Luck and the LP Heaven Or Las Vegas recorded at the band’s own studio, September Sound. There is a slightly annoying synth-piano that features in the chorus and the song has a very upbeat feel that would be more at home with an 80’s pop band. There are even some African style backing vocals and a cool key change that seem to make a track like this hard to fit in any genre box. The song is quite short by comparison to others but is a good example of the Twins’ experimental workings.
Iceblink Luck
As one of the many gems from the Heaven Or Las Vegas album, “Iceblink Luck” was a single release and contained the two non-album tracks, below, as B-sides. Although this appears to be exactly the same version as the album version, it is an interesting experiment to place a song out of its context alongside unreleased material as was done here. There were probably more viable numbers from the album that could have been used as singles but it does work well within the triumvirate of the EP.
Mizake the Mizan
This lighter-than-air track takes the listener on a journey through the clouds as the vocals are phased and swirl about in a way that could only work as a Cocteau number. The production “sound” appears to be different on this track and “Watchlar” than on Heaven Or Las Vegas, which might illustrate that the purpose of these tracks was for an EP and not just album leftovers. It’s very reminiscent of their later work with Faye Wong.
Watchlar
One of the more interesting elements of the Cocteau Twins’ music it that they could employ the percussion from an organ (or Casio keyboard) and create a song out of it. And, yet, it never sounded like that embarrassing synthetic drum pattern grandma would play “Amazing Grace” to on her Kawai after a few sips of brandy at the New Year’s Eve party. There is an element of funk that the trio always manages to incorporate into their fluffier numbers, especially at this time. A great synth bass line and sustained piano part work on a cyclic basis allowing Fraser to take the song to new heights.

 
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