Last week, I did a quick round-up of some new releases I’ve enjoyed. In that post, I mentioned that upon occasion friends and acquaintances familiar with my blog will ask what I’m listening to. When they ask this question, the tacit assumption I make is that they want to discuss current recording artists. There’s always a few up-and-comers I champion, but any time someone asks “who are you listening to” it’s usually an older act I’m investigating. This year, if you asked “what are you listening to” my answer is “the Cocteau Twins.”
At this point, it’s hardly incendiary to proclaim oneself a fan of the long-defunct Scottish dream pop act. For one, there’s not much to hate. It seems detractors profess indifference rather than contempt, deeming their music pleasant but inconsequential. The worst insult I’ve heard was that there’s little difference between their sound and the pan-global efforts of 4AD labelmates Dead Can Dance and new age artists like Enya and Enigma. These artists sound good as background noise at a bougie dinner party. Pass the quinoa.
Though their releases always clutter discount bins — no doubt jewels from the reject piles of former high school goth kids’ CD collections — contemporary acts like M83, Warpaint, Phantogram, School of Seven Bells, Sleep Over, and even Linkin Park cite their influence. While folks like Madonna and David Lynch noted their interest in the band early on, it’s only recently become “fashionable” to like them. In 2005, there was unsubstantiated talk of a reunion at Coachella. In 2008, the band received a Q Award for their contributions to popular music, a rare accolade Fraser noted for an otherwise undecorated band.
In the past few years, I’ve entered into more conversations with people who like them, along with the work band members vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, guitarist-producer Robin Guthrie, and bassist Simon Raymonde did with This Mortal Coil, especially Fraser and Guthrie’s contributions on It’ll End in Tears. Like M83’s Anthony Gonzalez, a lot of us are in are 20s and too young to directly experience the group’s 80s heyday. So I’m going to guess many of us came to our fandom through other portals, perhaps exploring the reference Patton Oswalt makes in his bit about KFC bowls in Werewolves in Lollipops or listening to the haunting score Guthrie and composer Harold Budd created for Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin.
I first remember hearing Cocteau Twins on the radio in 1994. The song I heard was “Bluebeard,” the lead single to their penultimate album Four Calendar Café. I liked it fine and noticed they already enjoyed a long career. I suspected Sarah McLachlan might be a fan based on songs like “Fear” and “Vox,” the latter of which was originally released on her 1988 debut Touch but received some airplay following the success of Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. I seem to recall that she opened for the band at some point during this time, but can’t confirm this.
In 1998, I remember hearing Fraser on Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” which may be where many fans in my peer group first heard her. The song is still mesmerizing to me and continues to appeal to others. House incorporated the song as its theme, though regrettably without Fraser’s vocals. Friday Night Lights used José González’s cover this season to underscore a heartbreaking scene where Matt Saracen learns of an unexpected death in his family. I later found out that Fraser was recording the song when she heard that her one-time confidant Jeff Buckley drowned. Fraser considered the song as something of a tribute.
During graduate school, I read Simon Reynolds and Joy Press’s nebulous The Sex Revolts, wherein Fraser’s opaque vocals were linked the womb and the abject. As with much of that book, I wished the authors limited their focus to something less amoebic than gender fuckery in popular music and didn’t crutch so heavily on Gilles Deleuze to support their claims.
I highlight these points to emphasize that the Cocteau Twins were in my periphery for some time, but only recently a band I claimed for my own. I knew of them, but felt their catalog and devoted fan base to be rather intimidating. I started actively listening to them in winter 2008, primarily because Bat for Lashes, Gang Gang Dance, and M83’s “80s album” garnered comparisons. I liked what I heard (I went with 1984’s Treasure as a starting point), but then went about my business. But earlier this year, I reinvigorated a long-dormant obsession with Jeff Buckley. Out of feminist disdain for having a male musician occupy my mind, I turned toward the female musicians in his life. I listened a bit to Rebecca Moore and Joan Wasser’s work, but the Cocteau Twins left a more immediate impression. I dove back into Treasure and went deeper into Blue Bell Knoll, Head Over Heels, Aikea-Guinea, Love’s Easy Tears, Victorialand, and Heaven or Las Vegas. I’m still “in it” and see no reason why you shouldn’t be plunging the leagues with me.
Like many, I was taken by Fraser’s voice. A lover of Björk, Kate Bush, and Siouxsie Sioux, who Fraser recalls in her lower register, I champion beautifully strange female voices. Fraser’s dramatic style is often dialogued with her lyrics, which are usually inscrutable and laced with references to obscure words, gibberish, and slang endemic to the band’s origins (i.e.: “aikea-guinea” is a Scottish term for “seashell”). Though seemingly nonsensical, many fans embue meaning in their attempts to decode what Fraser is singing. But I concur with Jason Ankeny that what makes Fraser’s mouth music resonate with listeners is her emphasis on “the subjective sounds and textures of verbalized emotions.”
This speaks to Fraser’s ability to subvert language, project strength, and demonstrate control, qualities for which I don’t think she gets enough credit. Critics pay particular attention toward her voice’s beauty. Indeed, Fraser possesses an opera singer’s virtuosity, chewing on words’ dexterity, skipping through complex rhythms, and leaping octaves and strange intervals. But her work tends to be described as “ephemeral,” “ethereal”, or “gossamer” to ultimately argue its frillery as being conventionally feminine. But I think there’s something to be said for a woman who writes indeciferable lyrics to songs with names like “Cico Buff,” “Sugar Hiccup,” and “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” and taps wells of emotion using these words. It could be profoundly embarrassing for both the singer and the listener, but Fraser finds the pith surrounding emotions’ ultimate intangibility.
But as this year for me is also defined by picking up a guitar, Guthrie’s contributions cannot be overstated. Fraser created a vocal style a host of UK female artists would come to emulate. Similarly, Guthrie rivals few beyond The Smiths’ Johnny Marr in the cultivation of a distinct guitar sound for its time that many would later attempt to replicate. This is evident in how younger artists on 4AD like Lush called upon Guthrie to produce their albums, no doubt aware of and indebted to the Twins’ involvement in forging a distinct pop sensibility for the label. I think it’s also noticable in Kevin Shields’ work. While some like to suggest My Bloody Valentine’s blissful, feedback-laden guitar drone and androgynous vocals were created in a vacuum, I suspect the band took notes on the Twins composing and recording processes.
Guthrie’s guitar sound also speaks to me directly. As a guitar player, I have little interest in the monster riff foolwangery many nurture when they pick up a Fender Stratocaster in the hopes of becoming Stevie Ray Vaughn. Instead, I like how the guitar can be used to conjure atmosphere and mood, however fleeting or mutable. Like Guthrie, I’m also a fan of seventh chords, which destabilize the triad and create a sense of irresolution. Thus this music tends to shift expectations of how it’s supposed to sound, requiring listeners to pay attention in order to process superficially beautiful but compositionally complex music. I suppose this sense of mastery ultimately puts Guthrie in the position of guitar god, though his indifference toward conventional melody and reliance on Fraser’s voice, Raymonde’s sleepy bass, and an omnipresent Roland 808 potentially shift expectations of the band’s sound and his role in helping create it.
We could dwell on Fraser and Guthrie’s former relationship, the daughter they share, his former dependence on heroin and alcohol, the couple’s estrangement, and the band’s disintegration. I’m not especially interested in it, however. But like many UK post-punk acts, I am fascinated in how the band developed such a dreamy sound out of their surroundings. In the documentary Made in Sheffield, Human League frontman Phil Oakey talked about his band’s desire to break away from the tedium of work with the hope of maybe making it onto the Top of the Pops.
I’ve never been to Grangemouth, but I’d anticipate its distinction of housing a large petrochemical plant speaks to post-war industrialism and the assumption that its citizenry would work at the factories and refineries. A trio of spotty kids opting to spin gorgeous, incoherent post-punk inside a basement with their eyes toward heaven? I think it’s worth remembering.
Last night’s episode of Friday Night Lights, rebroadcast on NBC falling season four’s original run on DirecTV, was noteworthy for a whole host of reasons. “Stay” followed “The Son,” an episode that broke my heart with its focus on Matt Saracen, the character who has consistently broken my heart throughout the series’ run. While in some ways less heavy than the previous episode, “Stay” drew attention toward two young Dillon couples whose relationships are in jeopardy. One couple –frustrated Dillon townie Saracen and senior Julie Taylor — left town for Austin and came back uncertain if they could remain a couple. Refreshingly, this dischord came not out of a lack of love but from a mature realization that one of them will be starting college next fall and the other really needs to get off a sinking ship.
I had a few quibbles with the episode, of course. One involves Saracen and Taylor’s destination. The couple go to the generically named Austin Indie Music Festival, which seems like an awkward collusion of Fun Fun Fun Fest and South By Southwest. While I believe the show does an acceptional job utilizing the capital (including my neighborhood) as a stand-in for fictional West Texas rural suburb Dillon, it has a habit of clumsily shoehorning in references to the city, its music scene, and the University of Texas. The festival is an example, as is the location for one of the shows Saracen and Taylor attend. To an outsider, seeing a band play the courtyard at Emo’s may not warrant objection. But most regulars will tell you that the atrium is usually a communal space between the venue’s indoor and outdoor stage areas. In the nine years I’ve lived here and the numerous concerts I’ve attended at Emo’s, I’ve never seen a musical act perform in that particular area. I’m sure the spot was chosen because it was easier to light, stage, and film. But the location does kick some folks out of the text, perhaps suggesting the limitations of trying to doggedly capture and recreate actual spaces for television.
That said, I enjoyed that The Heartless Bastards were featured so prominently in the episode. For one, they can wail — especially guitarist and lead singer Erika Wennerstrom, who took up residency in Austin a few years back. For another, their gritty sound has a crossover appeal that evokes fellow Ohioans The Black Keys as well as Friday Night Lights‘ handle on candid performances and Dogmaesque cinematography.
Also, the inclusion of a band like The Heartless Bastards lines up with the series’ interest in aligning with indie and indie-friendly musical acts through their characters and as a marketing strategy. And regardless of what happens to this young couple, I take comfort in knowing that Wennerstrom’s band might help them get through it.
I close out week six of “Tuning In” with a post on Friday Night Lights and music geeks. With any luck, it’ll get you pumped for tonight’s episode.
I’ve always had a special place in my heart for King of the Hill. It kind of lost its footing after being on the air for so long, but I stand by season twelve’s “Lady and Gentrification” (aka “the hipster episode” aka “what happened to Austin’s East 7th Street”). I also stand by a touching finale, which left us with the image of propane salesman Hank Hill grilling with his son Bobby. Other reasons are as follows.
1. I’m a Texan. And while, like Friday Night Lights‘ fictitious Dillon, the location of Arlen is flexible — while the name of the town comes from Garland, sometimes it seems like Temple, other times Nacogdoches, other times Elgin, and other times Waco — both shows do a great job capturing the culture, values, and pace of life in small town Texas. By the way, I grew up in Alvin, which sounds a lot like Arlen and was filled with dudes just like Hank Hill. Some of them were my friends’ dads.
2. Bobby Hill might be the queerest ostensibly heterosexual pubescent boy American prime-time network television has ever offered us. That he was voiced by Pamela Adlon definitely adds a layer of queerness that, say, Nancy Cartwright can’t offer Bart Simpson. Also, Bobby cracked me up.
3. In the wake of Brittany Murphy’s tragic death, hearing her voice come out of Luanne Platter is strangely poignant. And while she eventually became woefully underwritten in the service of creating more screen time for her husband Lucky Kleinschmidt (and Tom Petty, who played him), I always liked Ms. Platter. Especially whenever she was fixing cars or skating in the derby.
4. Señora Paddlin’ Peggy Hill. While her skills as a substitute junior high Spanish teacher were questionable, her hubris got her into trouble, and she never owned the term “feminist,” I always admired her. For one, she was voiced by avowed feminist Kathy Najimy. Peggy herself had formidable Boggle skills, was a professional muser, and had a mean pitching arm. She jumped out of a plane with a faulty parachute and lived. And she never took any guff from her misogynistic father-in-law Cotton, but made friends with just about anybody, including prostitutes and drag queens. For a list of other awesome things Peggy did during the show’s thirteen-season run, I highly recommend checking out the Consumed issue of Bitch.
Best of all, Peggy was always trying to gain professional skills and broaden her personal experiences. This led her to become a successful realtor later in the series. But she was always trying to better herself. For example, in season two’s “Peggy’s Turtle Song” she picks up the acoustic guitar and takes lessons from a feminist instructor played by Ani DiFranco.
Now, I think this episode takes an unfortunate turn. As was often the case with King of the Hill, Hank tended to know best. So what was originally an episode about Peggy trying to find her own voice and growing critical of her marriage becomes a retreat from feminist dogma and back into her husband’s arms.
But I don’t think we should discredit Mrs. Hill’s angst, as she never lost it. Throughout the series, she proved herself to be a peer to her husband and never let herself settle. She stayed restless and opinionated. And I’m pretty sure she kept that guitar.
I was talking with my friend and neighbor Rosa-María during Glee‘s fall finale about Freaks and Geeks. We were specifically talking about the final episode, “Discos and Dragons,” which she just rewatched. In it, Michiganian teen protagonist Lindsay Weir is loaned a copy of The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty by her hippie high school guidance counselor Jeff Rosso and steps into a larger world.
I’m not a Deadhead. For those of you watching Community, main character Jeff Winger’s religion/Paul Rudd analogy in this week’s episode is pretty much exactly how I feel about the band (i.e., we understand the appeal and don’t begrudge it, but also don’t share it). To me, I’ve long wondered why anyone would listen to the Dead when there’s Santana, a peer jam band that was more rhythmically intesting with a better lead guitarist. And before anyone starts mailing me bootlegs, I have also heard American Beauty. My first listen even took place around some pretty optimal conditions. It didn’t take.
That isn’t to say that I’m not fanatical about other things. For one, I’m a huge Animal Collective fan, who are themselves a bunch of hippies with a rabid fan base. And while I don’t think the two bands sound that much alike, both espouse feel-good truisms like “What do you want me to do, to do for you to see you through?” and “You have your fits I have my fits, but feeling’s good.” And of course, Animal Collective’s “What Would I Want? Sky” samples the Dead.
I’m fanatical about this show too. It’s one of my favorite television programs, perhaps of all time, and unlike some of the critically-acclaimed fare of the decade (ex: The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, 30 Rock, The Office, season two of Friday Night Lights, season three of Arrested Development), I don’t think I know anyone who has seen Freaks and Geeks and doesn’t like it. I’m especially fanatical about how much music factors into both the characters’ lives and the tone of the show. For a show set in pre-MTV suburban Michigan, it nails the radio domination of classic rock, the percolation of punk and post-punk, and the general antipathy toward disco. Thus, it makes sense that Lindsay and many of her peers would be into the Dead, as they’re also into The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Rush.
As an aside, one of Lindsay Weir’s clearest televisual counterparts is not a Deadhead, even though the band was fashionable at the time of her show’s season-long run. Angela Chase, the angsty protagonist of ABC’s ultra-90s’ drama My So-Called Life was given her father’s tickets to a Dead concert in “Father Figures” because he couldn’t make the show. She scalped them out of anger toward her father, who she caught talking to an attractive woman who was not her mother outside their house. She also did it for the chance to talk to her crush Jordan Catalano, who was willing to buy the tickets from her. But it’s also clear that Angela doesn’t get what all the fuss over the band is about, much to the ire and bewilderment of her Deadhead friend Rayanne Graff.
I think Lindsay becoming a Deadhead is really interesting. Throughout Freaks and Geeks‘ 18-episode run on NBC and the Fox Family Channel, Lindsay worked toward defying expectations. Sometimes, these expectations were put upon her by her peers, whether they be her kid brother Sam and his nerdy friends, the Mathletes she used to be close with as a geeky good girl, or the burnouts she hangs out with throughout the series’ run. Other times, they were put upon her by authority figures, whether they be the concerned faculty at William McKinley High School or her parents, who feared this bright girl was throwing her life away by running with a bad crowd.
But the best moments for me of this show were when she defied her own expectations, which were already considerable. She does it when dumping freak Nick Andopolis, an otherwise nice boy who was completely wrong for her, and later when she tries to be his friend. She does it when she rejoins the Mathletes only to quit again after realizing that she doesn’t get any joy out of it. She does it when she tries pot for the first time, only to discover that she really doesn’t like it. She does it when she sticks up for her friend Kim Kelly in English class when they both dismiss Jack Keroauc’s On the Road, to the disdain of their pretentious teacher. She does it to dazzling effect when promoting her family’s sporting goods shop while sticking it to Vice President George H.W. Bush and his lackeys for throwing out the original question she was going to ask him in assembly during his visit to her school.
She does it here too. Originally skeptical of the Dead’s profundity, she gets a gentle nudge from a stoner couple at her school (one of whom is played by Samaire Armstrong, who I enjoyed on The O.C. as Seth Cohen’s music geek girlfriend Anna and who had an enviable platinum blonde pixie cut with hot pink roots in the Lindsay Lohan vehicle Just My Luck). When Lindsay gets the record home, she slowly absorbs the music and ends up “getting it,” whirling around exuberantly in her room.
As an aside, kudos to actress Linda Cardellini for being able to make what could be an otherwise cheesy scene believable.
Discovering the Dead couldn’t come at a better time for Lindsay. As her junior year winds to a close, she finds out that she’s been selected to participate at a state-wide academic summit at the University of Michigan. The idea of spending two weeks of summer vacation participating in competitive seminars and hobnobbing with her supposed intellectual peers sounds like a flattering offer but a pointless exercise to her. It sounds like little more than résumé padding to me, though I probably would’ve gone if offered it at that age).
However, the idea of following the Dead from Texas to Colorado with her Deadhead friends and Kim sounds like an ideal way to spend part of her summer vacation. So she decides to skip out on the symposium to go truckin’.
And while I have no doubt that Lindsay ends up going to a good college anyway, I’d imagine that those two weeks did more to shape her as a young woman than battling wits with a bunch of eggheads about great literary and philosophic work ever could. She’s probably the kind of person UC-Santa Cruz are looking for to manage their Grateful Dead collection. At the very least, I’m sure she’s got some items to donate.