T-shirt #300 - Cocteau Twins
300 shirts so far, and I still have not counted how many remain in my closet (or in a box of new shirts). I am pretty certain that I have at least 65 left if not more. However, I may take another hiatus with minimal posts for a week or more so as to be able to finish some bigger posts. Stay tuned. I think the end of this blog's year will be exciting like the end of a novel, or at least as exciting as something this narcissistic can be.
But 300 is a milestone, and so I wanted something "milestoney."
I had wanted to make the post for T-shirt #300 something truly special and significant. I have two or three posts that I have been doodling for months. But with my work load, I knew I would not be able to finish any of them in time and do justice to the subject matter. This shirt has been lingering in the place in my closet in which I have grouped T-shirts that are soon to be featured, but I have also been putting it off featuring it because it WAS my only Cocteau Twins shirt, and I want to do a proper job with the one and only love letter to one of my favorite bands.
But nothing spurs me to action more than knowing I have other shirts (or at least one other) to be able to write extended and loving content to a band that I adore. So, seeing that one of my longer essays or special features would not be completed in time (or at least not completed to my standards) for T-shirt #300, I decided to share this shirt and some thoughts on a band that would win, hands down, the award for the band I have most listened to over the years.
In fact, looking back on my post for T-shirt #97 - Kraftwerk, in which I listed the albums I have listened to most, the largest number of times, in my life, you will not see the Cocteau Twins in the top ten. I am starting to think this is an oversight. I may have over estimated the number of times I have listened to some of those albums in my top ten. Though there were times in my life when I listened to some of those albums daily or nearly daily, some are newer, and I have listened to various Cocteau Twins albums over and over since my discovery of them in the mid-1980s. I am not inclined to go back and change those lists too much because I would have to place ALL the Cocteau Twins albums somewhere in the lists. When I made that list, I was trying for some variety rather than listing five of the Cocteau Twins albums in the top ten most listened to albums as they probably deserve. I do think that list needs some adjustment as a Cocteau Twins album belongs in the top ten. So if you want to check out my list again on T-shirt #97 - Kraftwerk, go ahead. I will probably also post my revision to Facebook if you catch me there.
Okay, list updated.
Hey... it's always fun to find things on Amazon with a simple search like "Cocteau Twins Book."
FIRST TIME I HEARD COCTEAU TWINS BOOK
Today's shirt comes from my one and only time to see the Cocteau Twins in concert as in the ticket stub to the right. Once again memory fails. I was between relationships in March of 1991. It's times like this that I would like a time machine as I have no idea with whom I went to that concert, but it was surely NOT my recent ex-girlfriend. I don't remember much about the concert other than I loved it as I love the Cocteau Twins.
One of my most often played mixes is a Cocteau Twins mix which I named after one of their songs: "Ella Megalast Burls Forever."
If you have never heard the Cocteau Twins start with the next video.
There is no further proof needed of why Cocteau Twins have made some of the most beautiful music in the modern era.
COCTEAU TWINS - MUSIC
The music of Cocteau Twins is difficult to describe. Live stuff is different than studio. The studio stuff features multiple layered sonic landscapes achieved with a variety of technological devices.
In many ways, Cocteau Twins defined the British 4AD label: COCTEAU TWINS AT 4AD. Their work evolved from an earlier, raw, bass heavy sounds on Garlands, their first LP, to the eventual more "pop" sound of Heaven or Las Vegas.
Here's the WIKIPEDIA description, which is not bad, though it hardly defines the band that I love so much.
Cocteau Twins were a Scottish rock band active from 1979 to 1997, known for innovative instrumentation and atmospheric, non-lyrical vocals. The original members were Elizabeth Fraser (vocals), Robin Guthrie (guitar, drum machine) and Will Heggie (bass guitar), who was replaced by multi-instrumentalist Simon Raymonde early in the band's career.
While the entire band earned much critical praise, Elizabeth Fraser's distinctive soprano vocals received the most attention. At times barely decipherable, Fraser seemed to veer into glossolalia and mouth music. Allmusic reviewer Ned Raggett writes that "part of her appeal is how she can make hard-to-interpret lyrics so emotionally gripping."Much has been written about Liz's lyrics and her "vocalizations." Ultimately, I don't care what she's singing. Part of loving the Cocteau Twins has to do with giving up knowing the lyrics. It's music. You dig into the music and experience the sounds, the sonic journey through the tunnel of palpable sound.
Really the best introduction to Cocteau Twins is to listen to their music. I may "wax and wane" more about their music in a future post as I am getting a Cocteau Twins shirt for my birthday. But here's some tracks via video to whet your appetite if you take the time to listen or listen again if you are already acquainted.
I find it almost impossible to describe the beauty of that song. "Carolyn's Fingers" from the 1988 album Blue Bell Knoll is definitely my favorite Cocteau Twins song, and I think it's a good place to start if you have never heard of or heard the band. The next two songs are much more accessible.
Of all their work, the 1990 album Heaven or Las Vegas was the biggest "hit," especially in America. Some recognizable words are identifiable in this song, but it's certainly one of the more "accessible" tracks by the band, if such a word even needs to be applied.
I am tempted to include the entire Victorialand (1986) album, but that's a bit much. It's on YouTube if you want to give it a go. It's a beautiful album and by far my favorite. "Lazy Calm," the first track from Victorialand almost seems like it instrumental because of the long instrumental opening, but Liz's hushed vocals come in during the six minute track.
There's an extensive history of the band written by RIP Leesa Beales (1969 - 2010), who died of cancer in 2010.
Her history, available on the Cocteau Twins main site was meant to be a book, but I don't think that plan saw fruition due to her death. Beales also ran the Cocteau Fests for years.
The history is extensive and interesting. I am only pulling this one bit for your reading pleasure (if you are interested).
From the history of the band: LINKED HERE.
"An LP always seems like an important statement, the next step, blah blah...It's not. This is just something we've been casually doing this year in our studio." — Robin Guthrie
If there's one lesson anybody will learn from listening to Cocteau Twins, it's that one can never know what to expect next. This lesson becomes rather evident with the companion EP's Tiny Dynamine and Echoes In A Shallow Bay. Just as the listener feels s/he has figured it all out, the Cocteau Twins come along and take you completely by surprise.
Tiny Dynamine and Echoes In A Shallow Bay—impossible to discuss separately—marks the beginning of another phase in their music history, one which clears more territory in the abstract reaches of the metaphysical, textural, and impressionistic elements to which they unassumingly, unwittingly, and perhaps unintentionally lay claim. Everything is starting to float around and separate—space out—and slow down somewhat. The production quality is highly polished and full-bodied and is clearly the best production the band had done up to that point. The arrangements are well organized and exhibit rather mature songwriting.
Naturally, however, the Cocteaus—at least Robin—had a slightly different approach to the situation: "This is pure flop material we're releasing [laugh]. People think we're being awkward, but it's the only way we could possibly put these songs out. An LP always seems like an important statement, the next step, blah blah...It's not. This is just something we've been casually doing this year in our studio."
"It wasn't even meant to be a record to start off with. It's almost experimental, but that's the wrong word. We recorded it at our studio just to see if the place was good enough to make records. It is."
"We were half-way through it, when we realised that it was alright so we decided to pursue it further, do something with it."
"It's the best sounding record we've ever made, technically and everything. If you play it, it sounds good. We're learning to make records that sound better when you put them on. It sounds better than any Trevor Horn production [laughs again]. These records make me happy." [Jamming Magazine, 1985].
Listening to these two records can be like swimming inside a lava lamp or looking skywards from the bottom of a pool. The momentum is strikingly different when compared with previous material, except perhaps for "Quisquose," from Aikea-Guinea, which shows much similarity with the work on Tiny Dynamine and Echoes In A Shallow Bay. The timing signatures are complex and the tempo is often erratic and difficult to grasp. Liz's vocal instrument is increasingly acrobatic and dynamic, indicating a true gift for vocal arrangement and composition (I cite "Great Spangled Fritillary" as a prime example). The overall underlying theme may simply be that this isn't to be grasped—but instead to be imprinted upon the imagination and absorbed into the unconscious.
The song titles certainly inspire visual images and textures: "Pink Orange Red," "Ribbed and Veined," "Pale Clouded White," "Eggs and Their Shells," "Plain Tiger," etc. It is generally accepted that the two bodies of work were largely inspired by nature—particularly butterflies. Both "Great Spangled Fritillary," "Plain Tiger," and "Pale Clouded White" are common names of butterfly species; the "lyrics" to "Melonella" (itself a word for "swarm") are the Latin names for various butterfly species; and other titles, such as "Pink Orange Red" and "Ribbed and Veined" further contribute to such a perception. The title "Sultitan Itan," incidentally, is a borrowed lyric from "Pink Orange Red," in keeping with Liz's practice of reusing words and phrases throughout the work.
The rather perversely titled "Ribbed and Veined" is a complex instrumental piece, and a testament to the band's ability to write solid compositions—although, according to Simon, it happens unwittingly:
"I don't really think of us as songwriters. In the traditional sense, they're not songs at all. Songwriters, to me, mean people who sit down with an acoustic guitar and piano, methodically working out the right chords, what words go with these chords, fitting it all in. We don't work like that. It's usually, turn the tape recorder on and hopefully, in ten minutes, we have something. Then Liz will come down, listen and sing. It's not like song writing, it's music." [Jamming Magazine, December, 1985]
"Great Spangled Fritillary" is like witnessing an elaborate Tibetan ritual, repleat with gongs; and "Sultitan Itan" and "Melonella" are excursions into Jazz, with "Melonella"'s odd-sounding Latin lyrics—something only the Cocteaus' could express so well—while "Eggs and Their Shells" makes use of sparse echoed piano and astral guitar.
The most addictive track of the eight featured here is clearly "Pink Orange Red," for which the band recorded a live television video. This song has also been regularly performed live since 1985, and is one of the band's most popular live selections. "Plain Tiger" and "Pale Clouded White" also appeared in live performances in 1985 and 1986.
A more subdued "Pink Orange Red" was recorded in 1995 for the mostly-acoustic EP Twinlights. When asked why they chose that particular tune to rearrange acoustically, they stated simply that it was one of the few that "worked."
"Pink Orange Red" and "Pale Clouded White" were also selected to appear on the 2000 4AD retrospective compilation, Stars and Topsoil.
Tiny Dynamine and Echoes In A Shallow Bay we re-released as a double-EP in CD format in late 1985. Both were clearly overtures, at least in the abstract sense, to Victorialand and The Moon and the Melodies, which both appeared the following year and further and more fully explored this aspect of Cocteau Twins' music.
Because it's mentioned in the above history, here's "Pink Orange Red." This is a live version from The Tube in 1985. Wow... I just noticed something. For years, I thought this song came from the 1985 Tiny Dynamite but in running spell check, I have learned that the album is actually called Tiny Dynamine just as its spelled in the above quoted history. My mind always corrected the spelling for my eyeballs. Crazy.
The Moon and the Melodies seen here (above) is not technically a Cocteau Twins album, but a collaboration between the band members and ambient pioneer Harold Budd . The first track is below. It's one of my favorite albums.
Cocteau Twins & Harold Budd-Sea Swallow Me
Stay tuned for more Cocteau Twins in a future blog post. If you are newly introduced to the band because of my blog, let me know what you think. If you know the band and found something of interest, please let me know, too.
COUNTDOWN TO END OF THE BLOG YEAR - 65 shirts remaining
- chris tower - first published - 1401.15 - 21:56
final publication - 1401.16 - 10:30