cocteau twins–the masters of their craft

Soundtrack in my head: Cocteau Twins, “Pearly Dewdrops-Drops”

Ghost Halloween Woman Female cocteau twins
darksouls1 / Pixabay

Sometimes, a good way to tell how meaningful a musical artist is to a listener is to count the number of CD’s of the artist that s/he owns. So, in looking at my CD collection, one could surmise that the Grateful Dead (seven CD’s), John Coltrane (six CD’s), Miles Davis and Bill Evans (five CD’s each), Love, Lush and LTJ Bukem (four CD’s each) and The Church, Ride, The Boo Radleys, and The Charlatans UK, (three CD’s each) mean a lot to me as musicians.

Sometimes an artist’s music may so resonate with a listener that it’s “off the charts”—no other musical act even comes close. The listener is so touched by the music that he wants to get his hands on everything they’ve ever released. For me, that musical group is the Cocteau Twins. Off the charts? Yes. I own thirteen of their CD’s (sixteen if you consider the fact that many of the CD’s are two EP’s put together) and they have been my favorite band for 23 years. That’s a long run at “Number One.”

In 1984, I regularly listened to a radio show Friday nights on WXRT-Chicago called “The Big Beat.” At that time it was difficult to for me find the music I liked on commercial radio and “The Big Beat” was how I kept myself up to date on groups like The Smiths, Cabaret Voltaire, The Church, Echo and the Bunnymen, and others. It was while listening to this show that I heard something quite different from anything I’d heard before.

A song opened with the sound of bells and chimes and a vibrating sound that sounded sort of like a guitar yet different. The sound was powerful like a riff of a heavy metal guitar, yet at the same time subdued, sounding a little like the sympathetic drone strings on a sitar–except even more richly textured. And beautiful. I had this image of this sound echoing through every corner of a canyon as if nature itself were singing, and it was powerful enough of a sound to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up on end. Then came the crashing of cymbals, and the crisp and simple sound of a drum. And then a female voice completely unlike any previously heard in rock ‘n’ roll or New Wave or any other genre. The words were unintelligible—they sounded like English, but yet not understandable. But it didn’t matter because this female singer sounded like she had classical voice training. Sometimes she sounded like a fluttering bird and other times she’d make a sudden and dramatic leap to a high note and hit it perfectly.

Intrigued, I pressed the “Record” button on my tape player and listened. At the end of the song, the announcer said that the name of the band was the “Cocteau Twins.” I thought it was a funny name, especially considering at the that there was a well-known pop/new wave band at the time known as the “Thompson Twins.”  The song I heard was entitled “Lorelei.”

Then, a few weeks later, I heard another song by the Cocteau Twins, “Ivo” which opened with what sounded like the strumming of an acoustic guitar seemingly materializing out of nowhere in a foggy night. Once again, this guitar had layers of sound added to it which made it sound richly textured. And once again, this beautiful voice was doing vocal acrobatics through this alien yet unbelievably beautiful world.

With two tracks that caught my attention, I realized that I had to get the album, and so I did. The album was called Treasure, and many Cocteau Twins fans, including myself, consider it their finest one. The album opened with “Ivo” and “Lorelei and that was followed by eight other tracks.  All the song titles on the album consisted of people’s first names, though “Beatrix,” “Persephone,” “Aloysius,” and “Otterley” aren’t names one would hear every day. The music seemed to range from classical to New Wave to jazz to rock and yet it wasn’t any of these things.

One Saturday afternoon I lay in bed with my headphones and listened and concentrated entirely on the album. I was so deeply moved that afterwards, I walked out into the backyard, lay down in the grass, and stared at the sky for about three hours. At the restless age of seventeen, the notion of staying home rather than going out on a Saturday night was anathema to me, yet, that’s exactly what I did, and indeed, the notion of going out seemed rather trivial after listening to this album.

I collected more of their albums when I went to college.  By that time, the group was being marketed more in the U.S. and the record companies made available The Pink Opaque, a collection of music from earlier EP’s and albums between 1982 and 1985–on which I would discover my favorite all-time song by the group, Pearly-Dewdrops Drops).

I remember that in 1986 and 1987, people were introducing the Cocteau Twins to friends in college dorm rooms across the country. Frequently, it would involve someone encouraging a friend to put on headphones, lie down, close their eyes, and just listen to and absorb the music.  People frequently had the same reactions I did–they were completely blown away by a sound different from anything they’d previously heard.

The band’s song titles were also remarkably distinctive. Examples include, “Tishbite,” “Shallow Then Halo,” “Iceblink Luck,” “The Itcthy Glowbo Blow,” “Glass Candle Grenades,” “Ooze Out and Away, Onehow,” “Oomingmak,” and “How to Bring a Blush to the Snow.”

The group formed in Scotland in 1980 and continued until 1997. Over that period of time they released nine albums and eight EP’s, plus a number of compilation albums. I think what made the group special was the unique genius of Robin Guthrie, a real pioneer in extending the range of sounds possible with a guitar, and Elizabeth Fraser, whose approach to vocals was, and still is unique.

There is significant debate over what period of time marked their best music. I am partial to their releases between 1983 and 1986, which includes the albums Head Over Heels, Treasure, The Pink Opaque, Victorialand, and The Moon and the Melodies, plus a number of EP’s. I think this period showcased their music at the most experimental, dramatic, and beautiful. Others are partial to the period between 1988 and 1996, which includes the releases Blue Bell Knoll, Heaven Or Las Vegas, Four Calendar Café, and Milk and Kisses, a period of time in which their music was less experimental and more accessible, yet also marked a peak in the emotional depth of the lead singer’s lyrics.

I’m not sure how many other people would say this, but I think the Cocteau Twins had an important role in my early spiritual development. I changed as my musical tastes evolved. While I was exposed to significant amounts of classical music as a child, I’ve never really been able to feel a connection with most of it, though I’ve always liked and appreciated some of it. Rock ‘n’ roll was, of course, the music of choice among most of my school-mates, and I liked how it could convey strong emotions and speak to the rebellious side of me–but it also seemed a bit generic and lacking in creativity. The New Wave of the early 80’s appealed to me because of its creativity and the willingness to stretch and redefine previous notions of “cool.” The Cocteau Twins seemed to take a remarkable leap beyond all that by reintroducing and redefining beauty and creating previously unknown and surprisingly beautiful musical worlds on their own terms.

Since the breakup of the band ten years ago, band members Robin GuthrieElizabeth Fraser and Simon Raymonde have continued with solo projects and collaborations with other groups. Guthrie has produced a number of albums, and he and Raymonde formed the record label Bella Union right before the Cocteau Twins parted ways. The Cocteau has influenced many other musical groups. Though I imagine members of the Cocteau Twins might not associate themselves with the “shoegaze” musical movement that started in the late 80’s and early 90’s, clearly they influenced the genre.  Yet but remained quite different—retaining a more ambient sound and generally avoiding the darker and more gothic moods that some shoegaze music gets into.

I can’t think of any other time where I heard music that was so completely different from anything else I’d previously heard. The Cocteau Twins were clearly ahead of their time when they first came out with music in 1982, and twenty-five years later, I still don’t think the rest of the musical world has caught up.

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