A few weeks back, the trailer surfaced for Greetings From Tim Buckley, the first of reportedly two Jeff Buckley biopics in the works. The one that is currently in production attempts to take on the singer-songwriter’s brief career in its entirety, all the better to showcase its acquired rights to his original material. It boasts a cast of name actors. It also promises to make a star out of Reeve Carney, the British singer-actor who bears more than a passing resemblance to the alt-rocker. For some people, this is kind of a big deal. As a long-time Buckley fan who has followed trade discourse on a number of potential and aborted biopic projects since the late 90s when early cheerleader Brad Pitt trumpeted his interest, I’ve been concerned about who would tell the story and what such a film would focus on. I’ve been particularly interested in casting rumors and maintain that 2006-era James Franco would have been the way to go.
The other film, which made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival to some acclaim, appears to be a different animal. Penn Badgley—best known as Gossip Girl’s Dan Humphrey and also received attention for his work in Easy A and Margin Call—plays Jeff. However, rather than attempt to take on the young singer’s career, the film centers on his promising debut at a tribute concert for his late father, folk singer Tim Buckley, the man from whom he inherited an otherworldly voice but otherwise never knew.
Bracketing off the remainder of Jeff’s career is a smart move. For one, this story is arguably the most compelling portion of David Browne’s Dream Brother, a biography that dialogues father and son’s personal lives, professional trajectories, and untimely deaths. Focusing on a time before the son wrote his own material is perhaps a clever way to hide that the production didn’t receive permission from Jeff’s mother, Mary Guibert, who oversees his estate.
Situating Greetings within the music biopic’s governing conventions, the decision to build a film around one minor but important legend is also a way to potentially distance itself from the genre’s limitations. Stated broadly, music biopics are boring. They essentially tell the same story. A musician—usually male—cannot handle the pressures of fame. He indulges, he betrays trusts, he self-medicates, and he overcomes his vices—either through posthumous legacy or with a second wife. This makes it ripe for parody, whether we’re talking about Walk Hard or Behind the Music.
These are a set of conventions that are hard to rework or overcome. Arguably–and I say this as a fan–not even post-modern, self-aware music biopics like 24-Hour Party People completely pull it off. For all of Tony Wilson’s winking at the film’s construction of his record label’s mythology, all the conventions are in place. Ian Curtis commits suicide. Shawn Ryder succumbs to decadence and hurts the label in the process. Martin Hannett substitutes one addiction with another and dies. Factory Records loses its money through a series of poor business decisions and has to shutter the label and its night club, where Wilson gets to dance with his ghosts one last time. Given the film’s proclivity for postmodern asides, it misses an opportunity to not better integrate female artists who had minor or tangential relationships with the label and its scene. Linder Sterling made fliers for the Buzzcocks and fronted Ludus. ESG performed at the Haçienda’s opening night and recorded with Hannett. Happy Mondays’ backup singer Rowetta Satchell reportedly survived an abusive relationship with Ryder.
One possible reason why this film genre retraces the same narrative conventions is that the life of a touring musician is potentially a boring subject for a feature film. A concert can be a magical experience, a site of interpersonal conflict, or just another show. Otherwise, a tour is often a series of interchangeable cities, hotels, interviews, stage setups, vehicle breakdowns, and fast food restaurants anchored by a bus and limited wardrobe that adopts a stench which blooms and stagnates the longer you’re away from home. It’s tough to make this glamorous or narratively compelling for a feature film, which may explain why musicians’ lives and performances have arguably been better served by documentaries and concert films. David Byrne unveiling the oversized suit in Stop Making Sense is exciting. The countless moments where he and the rest of the Talking Heads engage in passive-aggressive sparring or ignore each other is not.
So where does this leave Greetings? Based on the trailer, Badgley does a capable job mimicking Jeff’s voice, mannerisms, and odd charisma. However, I worry that the film (or the studio) doesn’t trust its audience enough to recognize Badgley’s effort. The scenes selected for the trailer bluntly underline how much he looks and sounds like his father and that his performance at St. Ann’s Church was transcendent. Importantly, they use other people’s reactions to illustrate Buckley’s otherworldly star presence and artistry rather than trusting that filmgoers might be caught up enough in Badgley’s performance to make that leap for themselves. It’s especially intrusive at the end of the trailer when Jeff covers “Once I Was.” The camera lingers on reaction shots—particularly his lover’s tear-streaked face—instead of his performance.
I would imagine the primary motivation behind relying on other characters to tell the audience just how engaging Tim and Jeff Buckley were as performers is so the film to get around the potential liability of its subjects’ relative obscurity. Many people, if they know Jeff at all, are only familiar with his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which scored several 9/11 montages and Seth Cohen’s summer retreat and was performed by a few American Idol contestants. Critical estimation of Grace, his only album, grew after his death. It certainly influenced a number of vocalists—Thom Yorke, PJ Harvey, Maxwell, Duncan Sheik, Chris Cornell, Chris Martin, John Mayer, Rufus Wainwright—most of whom were more commercially successful. Tim’s work was well regarded by critics and peer musicians, particularly his early output, which sought to broaden the scope of folk music by folding in the textures and improvisatory impulses of free jazz. But he never had a proper hit record.
This makes the film’s title potentially confusing for people who are not familiar with either musician. Greetings takes its name from the tribute concert that helped establish Jeff’s presence in New York’s underground music scene and piqued the curiosity of major label A&R representatives. The title assumes that you know who these men are and their (non-)relationship to each other while the trailer hedges its bets by having virtually every character remind Jeff of his connection to Tim and his own artistic potential. The title is also potentially insulting to Jeff, who in some sense is once again overshadowed by his father’s legacy.
But I’m actually more concerned with what Greetings does to Rebecca Moore, Jeff’s former girlfriend. Moore did not give this or any other production permission to use her name and likeness in the film. I respect her decision. For one, she was with this man a long time ago and was the subject of many of his songs (most notably “Lover You Should Have Come Over”). More importantly, she’s always had her own thing going on. She is the daughter of Peter and Barbara Moore, an artist and historian associated with the Fluxus art movement. She is a fixture in New York’s avant-garde theater and music scene who received attention for protesting Lower East Side redevelopment initiatives. She is also a multi-instrumental independent recording artist. When she met Buckley, she was already an established presence in this scene. In the trailer, despite Imogen Poots’ best efforts, she’s reduced to a starry-eyed intern named Allie with a crush on her boyfriend’s father.
Another noteworthy figure in Jeff’s romantic life was Joan Wasser, who was in a relationship with the singer at the time of his death. Like Moore, Wasser is an accomplished veteran of New York’s independent music scene. It’s my understanding that she also did not grant permission for the use of her name and likeness in any related film project. One of my favorite parts of Dream Brother is Wasser’s recollections of the first night she spent with Jeff while their bands embarked on a tour together. Though Jeff had a reputation for being a player, many of his friends and romantic partners were creative women who had little to no interest in being part of the same industry with which he made his bed. I recognize that these productions must avoid reproducing too close a likeness to these women for legal reasons. But by parroting conventional representations of women in music biopics as blindly supportive and caught up in their lovers’ mystique, Greetings‘ filmmakers potentially do a disservice to their subject, a young man who had a bit more going on than his father’s voice and cheekbones, and the people who were part of his life.
A day before leaving my last job, I received a text message from Kristen at Dear Black Woman, that damn near made me do a spit take. It said “blog request: can you pls tell/explain the love for bon iver? particularly white ppls love for the background story of bon iver?” My reply was “That fucking guy.”
Some of this vitriol isn’t even Justin Vernon’s fault. Frankly, his brand of white boy croonery is too inoffensive to prompt any reaction from me. The same can be said of Fleet Foxes. And while I do like Grizzly Bear and Department of Eagles, my fandom isn’t such that I’d staunchly defend them the way I would, say, TV on the Radio or Vampire Weekend or the Dirty Projectors. Nor is my anti-fandom on par with how I feel about Jens Lekman, who does the nervous Woody Allen routine to curry sympathy from women and hides that he looks like a model and is probably a jerk, like Woody Allen. I only opted out of one part of Whip It!, and it’s the pool scene where the couple makes out over a Jens Lekman song. I quite like how Ellen Page’s character cut herself off the line her indie rocker love interest strung her on, but can do without that entire subplot. I kept wondering what the derby girls were up to or if Alia Shawkat was cutting AP Bio to smoke in the bathroom.
This isn’t Lekman’s fault, though. It’s easy to conflate your opinion of a musician with your assumptions about their fanbase. I’m sure lots of chauvinist dudes dismiss Sleater-Kinney as shrill because they’re feminists, which means that all their fans are humorless feminist white women. Thus, we have to take care to separate the work from its popular reception. When I say I don’t like Fleet Foxes, what I actually mean is “if Pitchfork didn’t give their debut Album of the Year status, most people would dismiss them as dad rock for CSNY fans.” When my partner’s dad says he hates Bread, he’s probably reacting against his square older brother and all the schlock he heard in the early 70s when his band was trying to make it. He can’t be reacting against “It Don’t Matter to Me” because that’s a smooth summer groove.
I’d imagine Vernon’s exile resonates with many fans as a sign of authenticity–he was able to write such personal lyrics and deliver them with so much emotion because he led a cloistered life untethered by the modern material world and central heating. That and white people like caring about things. Frankly I’m unmoved by Bon Iver’s origin story, and more than a little suspicious of a white person with the means to retreat. Survivalism came into vogue at the turn of the twentieth century with organizations like the Boy Scouts of America. It may have been intended as a way for boys and men to get in touch with nature, acquire self-sufficiency, and forge intergenerational bonds. I don’t doubt that those lessons continue to be imparted. But it also seems like a neat way for white men to run around in the woods, fetishize a particular kind of masculine ideal, and reconnect with a pioneer spirit while conveniently erasing the racial injustices placed against Native Americans and enslaved people of color. It’s easy to go camping when you don’t have to live in a tent.
I remember back in 2007, when it circulated that Vernon recorded For Emma, Forever Ago in a cabin following his band’s dissolution, an epic break-up, and a bout with mononucleosis, but didn’t seek it out. Look, Paul Thomas Anderson wrote most of Magnolia in Bill Macy’s cabin, too terrified to leave his desk. It doesn’t change that the second hour is a slog, the frog rain is gimmicky but not insufferable, and the Aimee Mann sing along is quite moving. Tom Cruise also gives one of his best screen performances.
People are obsessed with legends and origin stories. If we weren’t, Hollywood wouldn’t continue to exploit this fascination with shitty comic book movie franchises. Likewise, classic albums get integrated into the canon because of surrounding lore and myth-making. Stevie and Lindsey and John and Christine were falling apart during Rumours. Captain Beefheart handed in Trout Mask Replica in six hours. PJ Harvey lived on potatoes during Rid of Me. Kanye recorded “Through the Wire” with his jaw wired shut, which is why he has to Watch the Throne now.
I’m also reacting against the assumption that I would like Bon Iver. I certainly fit his demo–politically liberal, college radio listener, Pitchfork reader, cisgender white lady, alive when Bonnie Raitt swept the Grammys, inclined toward male romantic partners. But I reject the heteronormative assumption that my hypothetical fandom as a white woman would be tied to finding him or his music sexy. When I finally listened to “Skinny Love,” long after Bon Iver signed with Jagjaguwar and he recorded a song with St. Vincent for the Twilight soundtrack, I felt cold, tired, and manipulated. I’m partly reacting against hipster dudes outfitting themselves in rumpled men’s attire that telegraphs fucking in the woods, or at least not copping to Robbie Robertson doing it first with greater success. But the cabin in Northern Wisconsin scenario doesn’t send chills down my spine. Duran Duran recorded a song about getting it on in either an actual or metaphorical Antarctica. It’s not sexy so much as it is deeply embarrassing, though not the most embarrassing song on Liberty.
Part of this contrarianism also informs why I yelled at my TV when Netflix recommends “Independent Features with a Strong Female Lead.” I contain multitudes, Netflix! I don’t want to fit too neatly in a type. But I’m more than a little disconcerted about what that type might say about my race and gender. Just like I don’t want people to think that I believe feminism is predicated on white women’s subjugation of women of color and thus that a movie like The Help would speak to my politics, I bristle at the idea that a nerdy white lady like myself would, by definition, listen to Bon Iver. Or the Smiths. Or Belle and Sebastian. Or the Cranberries. Or that I’d instinctively champion a Miranda July movie, because, as Kristen noted in a post that addressed white lady quirk, where is the black mother of John Hawkes’ children in Me and You and Everyone We Know?
A post on Bon Iver is really a post on whiteness, because over his songs’ crisp acoustic/ambient arrangements, Justin Vernon is articulating a very messy white masculinity. Whiteness has always been at the center of rock music, and frankly it’s hard for me to tell if Vernon’s doing something radically new with collapsing folk and blue-eyed soul. In this supposedly post-racial cultural moment, it’s common for hipster-friendly musical acts to bring the two together. Justin Vernon’s British counterpart is James Blake, a white boy who gets accolades from Pitchfork for bringing his intimate singing style to an of-the-moment electronic subgenre like post-dubstep. It seems robots do cry, most likely to Joni Mitchell records.
Many of Vernon and Blake’s white peers are at home with R&B. Mayer Hawthorne can’t sing worth a damn, but that doesn’t keep him from channeling Curtis Mayfield in his bedroom studio and connecting with a large audience. Jamie Lidell brings soul music’s immediacy into the present, proving himself to be one of the most talented composers and vocalists of his generation in the process. Blake and Lidell also come from a country with a deep, problematic love for black pop music. Jamiroquai wouldn’t exist without Stevie Wonder. Simply Red’s biggest hit was a cover of a song Gamble and Huff originally wrote for Labelle. The Rolling Stones worship Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and Solomon Burke. Adele is channeling Dusty Springfield, who in turn was channeling Aretha Franklin.
Lidell was also at home touring with Beck, a full-grown (white) man who’s not afraid to cry or build a bridge between James Brown, Kraftwerk, and countrypolitan. Beck came into cultural relevance in a decade when Jeff Buckley covered Mahalia Jackson, Nirvana covered Leadbelly, the Blues Explosion recorded with R.L. Burnside while being called out as modern-day minstrels, and Radiohead could count Maxwell as a fan. In her essay “The Soft Boys: The New Man in Rock,” Terri Sutton argues that alternative rock was defined by a sensitive, self-reflexive white masculinity, but it also absorbed and appropriated soul, R&B, funk, and other generic expressions associated with black artists.
As Annie at Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style suggests, Vernon might set himself apart by having black artists accept him. Kayne West brought him in for “Monster” alongside Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and built “Lost in the World” around “Lost in the Woods.” However, white artists working with artists of color is as old as popular music itself. James Taylor worked with Gilberto Gil. Hall and Oates are embraced by black and white audiences. I believe West’s articulation of a black hipster masculinity, white hipsters’ quasi-ironic, quasi-sincere, deeply nostalgic, and highly performative fan appreciation for quiet storm R&B and new jack swing, and the Internet fostering an uneasy but fascinating integration are the key distinctions.
It speaks to why Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake channeling Color Me Badd for “Dick In a Box” captured so much public attention. It speaks to why a cheesy genre like yacht rock resonates, resulting in Warren G sampling Michael McDonald, Michael McDonald covering Grizzly Bear, and the cult phenomenon of a Web series that imagined the lives of James Ingraham and Loggins and Messina and brought Wyatt Cenac into millions of homes as a Daily Show correspondent. It gets at why I’m thrilled thrilled that any oldies radio format for my generation must include Adina Howard and SWV. It also explains why Bon Iver invokes Howard Jones and Back in the High Life-era Steve Winwood for “Beth, Rest” and it’s not totally left field. And it especially speaks to why Vernon would be involved with Gayngs, a loose assemblage of musicians that includes Andrew Bird and various members of Minnesota-based hip hop collective Doomtree that claims soft rock as its primary influence.
I don’t pretend that Bon Iver will unite a people, any more I can claim that Justin Vernon’s music as my own or that his performance of white masculinity is new or interesting. But parsing out the racial politics of genre hybridization, puzzling through the elision between ironic and sincere fandom and performance, and placing Vernon in that context is better than getting lost in the woods.
Last Tuesday, I caught Passion (Bab al-Makam) as part of the Austin Film Society’s Essential Cinema series on Middle Eastern films. If you have the means, get your local theater to screen it or find a copy.
Mohamed Malas’ haunting 2003 feature is set ten years ago, just before the United States invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban. It focuses on Imane (Salwa Jamil), a 30-year-old Syrian wife and mother who is transformed by her love for Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, after her husband, Adnan (Oussama Sayed Youssef), plays a tape for her. Unfortunately, Imane’s male relatives grow suspicious of how the singer’s music changes her. She becomes more independent and headstrong, most demonstrably through singing. Convinced that a singing woman is flaunting adulterous behavior, they begin to monitor and police her actions, with damning consequences.
As I tend to spoil a movie when I write about it because it’s hard to write criticism without parsing out major plot points, I’ll reveal now that Imane is ultimately silenced by an honor killing while looking after her children and niece when Adnan is away at a rally protesting U.S. occupation. It’s especially cruel that her uncle and cousins stab her to death while she and her charges are singing while cavorting around the house. I have heard that the film received some criticism for the ways in which patriarchy is represented in Arab Muslim society, suggesting the film prescribes to the ugly American racist essentialism that all Muslim men are misogynist pigs. I would hedge these comments by pointing out that these men are depicted as conflicted and deeply troubled by what they perceive their culture to expect of them as men.
Furthermore, Adnan’s gentle presence complicates this reading. He’s a kindhearted cab driver who cares very deeply for his family. Moreover, he’s delighted by how Kulthum’s music inspires his wife to sing. In bed one night, he reveals that he wasn’t especially fond of Kulthum until he heard her songs reinterpreted by Imane. He then requests that she sing for him, and goes down on her as she offers an incantation. It’s a sexy scene, particularly because the camera focuses on her face as she reacts to the pleasure she’s receiving from her lover as much as from her own voice.
What I find especially interesting about Passion is Imane’s reconciliation of the sacred with the sensual. This territory is well-traveled, whether we’re talking about the Song of Solomon or Prince’s and Tori Amos’ oeuvre. However, I’m not as aware of texts concerned with Muslim women making these connections and using their corporeality to do it. Granted, Kulthum’s music may be something of an easy entry point for many Western viewers (like me) who may not be particularly aware of Middle Eastern media culture but learned about her music from fans like Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, or NPR.
However, Kulthum’s fame (at least in some circles) also makes her a symbol for Muslim female (and possibly feminist) identification. Kulthum’s music conceptualized the spiritual realm and the secular flesh coming together in the service of Allah. She also enjoyed tremendous success in Egypt from the 1930s until her death in 1975, ostensibly serving as the voice of the Middle East. The entire nation watched her concerts on their televisions with rapt attention for decades.
There’s also something inherently queer about Imane’s identification with Kulthum. Perhaps this bond scares her male relatives the most, as there are few things terrifying to some men as an autonomous woman evolving. Imane nearly articulates the Sapphic dimensions of her love for Kulthum at one point, lolling on the floor and dazed by the power of Kulthum’s music. Entranced by the singer’s powerful voice, Imane proclaims that her music has transformed her from within. At the risk of cheapening the scene, Jamil plays this moment as if the post-coital cigarette is just out of frame. Imane may not desire Kulthum physically, but the homosocial exchange between musician and fan is undeniably charged with sexual electricity. Lest we forget that the most powerful erogenous zone is the brain. The ears and voice work with it, receiving sound and repurposing it. It’s congress however you puzzle it out.
Most importantly, Imane passes on the power of her voice to younger members of her family. While she may be left for dead by some members of her family, her niece and children take to the streets to protest her killing. Assuredly Adnan will join in once he hears the news of the tragedy. More importantly, she’s taught them Kulthum’s music, who will assuredly shape how they understand the value of raising their own voices. The promise to overthrow patriarchy’s stranglehold in this region blooms within them.
Destroyer’s Kaputt came out last Tuesday. As a longtime fan of Dan Bejar’s main project, I’ve been pretty taken with it since tracks started filtering out late last year. My line about Destroyer is that it’s what English majors should be listening to instead of the Decemberists. That’s as much a glib comparison as it is a cheap shot against a band I actively dislike, especially since they have very little in common besides being led by a nasal-voiced front man with a love for big words. I will allow, however, that I’ve never understood the point of Colin Meloy’s lyrics. To my ears, it exists for its own sake and since I maintain that Meloy rivals Jay Leno as the public figure in possession of the most punchable jaw, I’ll interpret that sake as personal edification. Bejar could be accused of similar things, though his elliptical lyrics and prismatic compositions transfix me. Notice how vast “Rubies” is in its first half, only to drop into disarming intimacy. A symphony folds into a four-track recording. Staggering.
I’m interested in Bejar’s artistic evolution, particularly after Your Blues. Derided in some circles as “the MIDI album”–a reference to the antiquated musical interface used to provide much of the album’s background music–many found this stylistic departure from his guitar-based compositions disconcerting. The rockist panic informing such aversion is pretty funny to me. Your Blues ranks among my favorite Destroyer records and warrants rediscovery. It’s clear with subsequent releases that while he may not have been using successive albums to respond to previous ones, he was building on certain ideas. Your Blues hardly sounds like a departure in context. The most reductive connection between Your Blues and Kaputt is that he’s channeling another outdated era of pop music production–one Mark Richardson places between 1977 and 1984, at the height of soft rock, smooth jazz, and new romantic pop. But Bejar’s always been interested in toying with outre musical ideas. Destroyer’s shimmering guitar lines recall 70s AOR staples like Bread and America, so his attempts at something we might call ambient yacht rock shouldn’t come as any surprise. Also, as an Electronic fan, I’m tickled that the New Order/Pet Shop Boys/Smiths’ side project is one of the album’s main musical reference points.
But what does come as something of a (pleasant) surprise to me is artist Kara Walker‘s presence on Kaputt. I had the privilege of seeing her My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love exhibit in 2008 at the Modern in Fort Worth. It remains my most disquieting spectatorial experience. Walker is best known for recasting Antebellum-era silhouette cutouts in cinematic tableaux to reinterpret America’s ongoing racist history (she also gets a shout-out in Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic”). Nightmarish visions of sexual violence and abjection twine with surrealist and sensual imagery that sneak up on you once you look past cultural associations with silhouette portraiture’s feminized gentility. That I saw this after looking at an Impressionist exhibit–and walking through the gift shop–at the nearby Kimbell Museum only put the vitality of the exhibit in sharper relief. There’s no way one of her murals could make it onto an umbrella.
Perhaps related to serving as a curator for Merge Records’ retrospective, Walker contributed lyrics to “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” so named as a reference to the proto-punk duo. She wrote several charged phrases onto cue cards and Bejar sang them, rearranging and embellishing some passages. It’s easily my favorite song on the record, though I’m disquieted as to why. Ann Powers recently offered some insights into their collaborative effort, noting their shared interest in appropriation. Bejar has been compared to Leonard Cohen, particularly his detached narration of hedonistic tales. Soft rock’s seductive qualities–the backlit production, the reliance on 7th chords–disquiet in their efforts to soothe and drip sophistication, especially when Bejar whispers lines like “New York City just wants to see you naked and they will,” “wise, old, black, and dead in the snow,” “All that slender-wristed, white, translucent business passes for love these days,” and “Don’t talk about the South, she said.” Kaputt also prominently features vocalist Sibel Thrasher. In the context of this song, her presence calls into question the role many black female vocalists held as background singers for artists like Simply Red.
Cohen also comes to mind when we talk about reinterpretation. Many folks who’ve heard “Hallelujah” might attribute Jeff Buckley, but the song originated with Cohen (actually, Buckley’s version is a cover of a cover, as he cribbed John Cale’s reading of it). So what happens when lyrics are drafted by an African American woman whose words are then reinterpreted by a white Canadian man frolicking in the studio? Who does it belong to? Frankly, I’m not sure. I’m inclined to rule that it belongs to both of them and to the listener. What I know for certain is that this song is stuck on repeat.
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.