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.