Thursday, December 29, 2011


I've said this a number of times, but I really wish I could love the Cocteau Twins. They are one of my favourite bands to read about because, when a decent writer discusses their music, it usually turns into a description of everything I love about music. Unfortunately, when I listen to the Cocteau Twins, I don't have the same experience. Part of it is the production--everything sounds impossibly dated and awkward (this is probably aided by reading guitar magazines as a teenager, which tended to demonize any and all uses of the chorus effect after its abuse in the 1980s)--but part of it is something I just can't nail down. I love Elizabeth Fraser's voice in other settings (Massive Attack's "Teardrop" or This Mortal Coil's version of "Song to the Siren," for example), but I often feel vaguely embarrassed when listening to her within the context of the Cocteau Twins. Similarly, I recognize how gorgeously detailed and layered Robin Guthrie's guitar sound is, but in action it often leaves me cold (or worse, bored). Thus, despite the fact that the Cocteau Twins helped invent/refine the kind of music that I love, I've pretty much shied away from listening to them. This is all the more surprising to me in light of the fact that I do really love a lot of things that sound like/bear an obvious debt to the Cocteau Twins, like Seefeel's Quique.

This is not to say that I hate the Cocteau Twins or actively dislike them. If anything, I'm ambivalent toward their music. I'll enjoy the odd song when I come across it, but the only album I own is Heaven or Las Vegas. Inspired to give that album another spin after writing about The Weeknd, who sample "Cherry-Coloured Funk" for "The Knowing" and have their own song titled "Heaven or Las Vegas," I was reminded how much I love the title track. Fraser's voice in the chorus is just perfect, lightly tripping through the syllables, and Guthrie's guitar is as neon and sparkly as the titular locales would suggest. Really, it's just a wonderful piece of pop that's sweet as the sugariest treat. I've always felt that the colour My Bloody Valentine used for the cover of Loveless is the perfect colour for that music (my own weak experience of synaesthesia). Similarly, the combination of Fraser's voice and Guthrie's guitar in "Heaven or Las Vegas" suggests the exact shape depicted on the cover of the album.

Browsing for the video for "Heaven or Las Vegas," I came across a band that, like the Cocteau Twins, I tend not to enjoy, despite their similarity to many other bands I do enjoy: Lush (whose album Spooky was produced by none other than Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins and who were also on 4AD). My brother is a Lush fan, and I remember him playing their albums while I was on the computer and he played video games, or vice versa.* One song I don't remember him ever playing, but that I've come to really like, is "Undertow" from their album Split (I think my brother stuck to things like "Desire Lines" and "Never-Never," though he didn't like The Cure, surprisingly). It's not hard to figure out what I love about "Undertow:" the opening drumbeat, so metallic and mysterious, the industrial-strength bass, and the swirling, sensual music (which owes not a little to Guthrie) that threatens to overwhelm the vocals until the lovely a cappella end. This is as heavily sexual as My Bloody Valentine, but unlike the fairly ambiguous/androgynous Loveless--and here is as good a place as any to acknowledge one of my favourite lines in any album review is Heather Phares' description of Loveless as "suggesting druggy sex or sexy drugs;" that's just so apt--the sexuality here is fiercely feminine, something like "Loomer" or "Blown a Wish," but deeper and darker somehow.

*There were three bands I can remember him playing in this situation: Lush, Buffalo Daughter, and Portishead. Clearly, only one of those three took. Actually, I think that Beth Gibbons and Elizabeth Fraser are not a million miles removed from each other in terms of technique, approach, subject matter, etc. This just makes my ambivalence toward the Cocteau Twins more confusing.

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