Monday, October 25, 2021

Ian Fisher - Live 2021.10.22 Prachtwerk, Berlin, Germany

Two and a half years ago I saw Ian play at the same venue on his last major tour, not counting the Tour of Tours show at Lido, one of the last shows I saw before the pandemic. Like everyone, Ian hasn’t been able to tour since then, despite that he released an excellent new album, American Standards, earlier this year. (Well, it was out last year for crowdfunding supporters, which is why I included it in my 2020 in Review post.) This tour was just four acoustic shows accompanied by his longtime collaborator Ryan Thomas Carpenter on banjo, keyboard, and backing vocals. This was my first indoor show since February 2020 and I’ve still been pretty anxious about attending events like this, but I’m vaccinated and I couldn’t resist the appeal. It helps that Prachtwerk is a really cozy venue, and they seem to know how to handle the sound such that it’s full and clear but not so loud that I need earplugs.

The show itself was excellent. Ian and Ryan played for almost two hours, including two thirds of American Standards, several of their older songs, a couple much older covers, and a whole six new songs! I loved the variety; that’s exactly the way to my heart. A particular highlight was “Manmade Mountains” from Vienna You White Moon (2009), which was given a much fuller arrangement with Ryan’s keyboard and harmonies. This was also the first time I can recall seeing Ryan play banjo, which he wielded deftly on some of the new songs and the cover of the Missouri state song. Although I quite enjoy American Standards, especially the title track and “Be Thankful”, the new songs were particularly special. It felt like we were getting an early taste of the next album, and the songs were already getting honed and arranged. “A Mother’s Love” was uncharacteristically sweet, but true as ever. “If I Show I Do” featured some impressive hambone percussion from Ryan while he simultaneously played the keyboard. “Achilles Heel” and “I’m Burning” reached impressive emotional and vocal heights, with the latter drawing in some gospel vibes in the chorus.

After coming back for the encore with another introspective new song, Ian and Ryan threw down and got the house rocking with the Hank Williams classic “Honky Tonk Blues”, complete with barreling solos from Ryan’s keyboard. “Ghosts of the Ryman” was an alternate opportunity for paying tribute to forebears, perhaps ironically featuring a lyric lightly mocking Southern-rock versions of Hank Williams songs. Much to my surprise, they even came back for a second encore. They asked for requests, and unsurprisingly “Candles for Elvis” won out. Ian claimed he barely remembered how it went, and he asked if Ryan could do it on the keyboard. Of course they went for it anyway, and with only a couple tiny flubs, it came off as the riveting, socio-politically emotional number it always does. It truly makes for a great closer.

Here’s the setlist:
01. [new song]
02. American Standards
02. Three Chords & the Truth
03. Melody in Nashville
05. Be Thankful
06. Manmade Mountains
07. If I Show I Do
08. Nero
09. Regret
10. Comin’ Down
11. A Mother’s Love
12. Missouri Waltz [cover of the Missouri state song]
13. Maybe a Little More
14. Achilles Heel
15. One Foot
16. I’m Burning

17. Only One Way Out & No Way Back
18. Honky Tonk Blues [Hank Williams cover]
19. Ghosts of the Ryman

Second Encore:
20. Candles for Elvis

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Ich brauche eine Genie Songbook-Release-Party - Live 2021.08.12 ://about blank, Berlin, Germany

What a strange year it’s been. Live music increasingly feels like a distant memory. Other than seeing a friend perform, this has been my first concert in almost a year, when I saw Bernadette La Hengst and the Chor der Statistik during the brief lull between lockdowns. I’ve made some of my own music and written some record reviews, but lately I’ve been busy with a new job and other life changes.

I’m still pretty skeptical about attending large indoor shows (and they aren’t really happening here anyway), but when I heard about a release party for a feminist songbook from Ich brauche eine Genie in the garden of ://about blank, that got my attention. The legendary sisters behind the Ich brauche eine Genie series, Kerstin and Sandra Grether, are charming and unbelievably enthusiastic. You couldn’t ask for better hosts or moderators for an event like this. They’re full of praise and humor, and they have an amusing ability to finish each other’s sentences and pick up right where the other left off.

The night opened with their own band, The Doctorella, which is indie rock with lyrics in the same delightful vein as their personalities. They were followed by Matching Outfits, whose intricate instrumental interplay and amusing lyrics were only outshine by their truly impressive three-part harmonies. Then came Babsi Tollwut, who rapped solid texts against the patriarchy, and Katrin Achinger, formerly of Kastrierte Philosophen, who claimed she hadn’t performed live in 20 years. I wouldn’t have noticed if she hadn’t said it; her voice and guitarwork were as dexterous as ever.

At that point, the pace of the evening sped up and the rest of the artists only performed one or two brief songs. It all went by in a bit of a blur, and I’ve probably left a name or two out or mixed up the ordering. Bernadette La Hengst, formerly of Die Braut haut ins Auge, played a keyboard and sang a song with her daughter. Drunk at Your Wedding told stories of travel on the cheap and sang about the kindness of strangers. FaulenzA played an accordion and spoke out against hyperconsumerism. Malonda rapped about embracing the fire inside and brought a friend to dance with her and through the audience.

Around that point, the clock struck 10 and no more music was allowed to be played (although the neighboring club somehow didn’t seem to obey that rule). The show carried on nonetheless with spoken word and a capella renditions. Annette Benjamin, formerly of Hans-A-Plast, read aloud the sarcastic classic “Für ’ne Frau”. Safi turned her songs in poetic mystery. Parole Trixi, Sandra Grether’s “other” band, turned their winding lyrics into scenic slam poetry. Die Supererbin told us tales of sexism and stress under lockdown. Hannsjana gave us another dose of humor against regressive reactionaries. And finally, The Toten Crackhuren im Kofferraum sang and acted out their frustrations with the job center and social judgment.

After a few closing remarks from the Grether sisters and their publisher, that was that! I naturally made a stop at the merch booth and picked up a copy of the book. The Grethers had explained that part of their inspiration was frustration with the lack of representation of women in major music media and festivals, and so they wanted to create something that would celebrate the many women artists that risked being left out once again. It’s a hefty book full of pictures, lyrics, art, and ephemera from 70+ performers. Most of the musicians are fairly new and young, but there are a few old favorites in there, too, like Malaria!, Gudrun Gut, Die Lassie Singers, Britta, and the aforementioned Die Braut haut ins Auge and Hans-A-Plast. Barbara Morgenstern, who I saw a couple years ago playing with Britta, is also present, along with all of the acts who performed at the release party and many more. It’s a really nicely put together collection!

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Chromatic Apparition - "Orbit"

It's been a while! Still no live music, but here's a new song of mine to celebrate an anniversary:


Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Cocteau Twins - Treasure Hiding (2018)

Recently I reviewed Cocteau Twins’ Lullabies to Violaine, Volume 1 and all of their 80s albums on 4AD. Both of those were a pure delight to write because I love that music so much. However, my original intent was actually just to write this review of Treasure Hiding, a recent compilation that covers (almost) all of their music from the 90s on Fontana. When I started making notes, I realized it’d be even more fun to write about the rest, so I went ahead and did that. Now it’s finally time for Treasure Hiding, which contains their last two albums, all of the related b-sides and EPs (also compiled on Lullabies to Violaine, Volume 2), two compilation tracks, and their final two BBC sessions (previously released as part of the BBC Sessions compilation in 1999). This period saw some turbulence for the band, and while the music wasn’t as consistently excellent, there are still some great parts.

Four-Calendar Café, released in October 1993, was the first Cocteau Twins album on Fontana after a break of three years. It’s surprisingly straight, like they were trying to be more conventional without completely giving up on their idiosyncrasies. It seems they couldn’t help some weirdness creeping in, but the production sounds more explicitly dated to the 90s. Musically, it’s sparser, airier, slower, lighter, and less expansive than previous records. Some parts recall their previous forays into ambient and acoustic music (Victorialand and The Moon and the Melodies, both from 1986). The biggest surprise is that Liz Fraser’s lyrics are almost all understandable, and they are perhaps not what one would expect! The words are shamelessly honest and direct. Her lyrics confront emotional turmoil head on, and one can only assume she’s singing about her breakup with Robin Guthrie. It must’ve been weird for the band, but she really goes for it! She doesn’t say anything particularly embarrassing, but the sincerity and earnestness is disarming. It’s like witnessing a therapy session. That said, most of the time it’s not that much different than Heaven or Las Vegas: some words will filter in and out of your ear, but most of it doesn’t stick and it all sounds pretty anyway. The bits that do stick are enough to make you think and wonder and maybe even relate, but you have to really focus to catch it all. And if you don’t focus, the music is still fairly good. It’s unfortunate that it mostly stands out in that it doesn’t stand out much; the music is subtle and restrained compared to previous albums. “Bluebeard” is a decent single, and I love the “are you toxic for me?” line. “Evangeline” is a bit drab and languid, especially for a single, but the background space effects are cool. “Summerhead” and the end of “Pur” are some of the only bursts of energy. The rest sort of melts together.

Their final album was Milk & Kisses from March 1996, and it sounds a bit more like what you might expect from the Cocteaus. It’s somewhere between their classic style and Four-Calendar Cafe. It’s notably thicker, deeper, and richer than the previous album, though. It’s modern and melodious, but also lush and full. It’s still not as inventive as their best work, and it again too often sounds like a product of the times, but at least the result is satisfying. The vocals and lyrics are also in between their heyday and Café; some are quite clear and distinct, but others are totally obfuscated and whimsical. The lyrics still seem influenced by the breakup, but the passage of time added depth and maturity that was lacking before. The lyrics are a touch less direct and emotional. “Violaine” starts the album off with awesome pseudo-reversed vocals. It’s almost like a rap, and in combination with the music, it sounds delightfully weird but unique. “Serpentskirt” is great, too, with its vibrance and the awesome change two-thirds in. “Tishbite” is breezy pop, but still better than most of Four-Calendar Cafe. “Half-Gifts” has a carousel waltz feel, but doesn’t take develop it. “Calfskin Smack” rests on warm beds of vocals, and the groovy alternate section and the guitar harmony solo are elaborately excellent. “Ups” is a showcase of Fraser’s best birdcalls and vocal technique even if the music is relatively straightforward. “Treasure Hiding” builds nicely, and “Seekers Who Are Lovers” is pretty good, too, so it starts and ends on strong notes, just like their other best albums.

The rest of of Treasure Hiding consists of the singles, EPs, and BBC sessions from the same period as the aforementioned albums. First are the two b-sides of “Evangeline”, released just before Four-Calendar Café in September 1993. Both sound like the b-sides they are; they are quite similar to the album. “Mud and Dark” is a classical metaphor, but musically it’s actually better than the average track on the album. “Summer-Blink” is unexceptional but for the very direct lyrics that verge on oversharing.

Next is the Snow EP from December 1993. In a truly unexpected move, Cocteau Twins released this brief EP with two traditional Christmas covers. It’s quite cheesy and more than a bit weird. It’s especially jarring in juxtaposition with the direct lyrics that they finally embraced in the rest of their music from this era. Both songs start out deceptively like classic Cocteaus for a few seconds before suddenly shifting. “Winter Wonderland” is especially cheesy and too straight. “Frosty the Snowman” is better, both in terms of arrangement and suitability for the band.

Then came the “Bluebeard” single from February 1994 with the last of the Four-Calendar Café outtakes. “Three Swept” and “Ice Pulse” are both again lyrically quite brutally honest and musically not their best. The acoustic version of “Bluebeard” is fine, but only marginally different than the album version and lacking in energy.

The Twinlights and Otherness EPs from 1995 might look at first glance like a throwback to the glory days of frequent EPs without parent albums, but the contents aren’t quite up to that par. Twinlights came first in September. All four tracks are merely acoustic versions of songs done better elsewhere. Two were previews of tracks from Milk & Kisses, which was still six months away at the time, but in retrospect, they don’t have much going for them. It’s all very sparse and light, which means Liz’s voice really takes the focus, but the music is wanting. “Pink Orange Red” is of course a classic, and this version is quite different from 1985 Tiny Dynamite EP version, but it can’t compete with the original. “Golden-Vein” fits in with the rest but was unreleased in any other version except the Radcliffe session, which is actually slightly better.

Otherness followed in October 1995. This time the catch was that it’s a remix EP. All four tracks were remixed by Mark Clifford from Seefeel. All are mostly instrumental and quite washed out. The EP draws from ambient, dub, and chill techno, but the result ends up sounding like a pile of generic 90s electronica clichés. Again, two tracks are previews of Milk & Kisses songs and none are from Four-Calendar Café, but the other two are older. “Feet Like Fins” (from Victorialand) is at least an interesting choice, and it’s the best of the bunch, but still not actually good. Much like the acoustic versions on Twinlights, Otherness just leaves you wanting more. The four early versions of Milk & Kisses tracks might have been exciting at the time, but that doesn’t matter now.

Treasure Hiding includes the “single version” of “Tishbite” from March 1996, but it’s just an edit with nothing else to show for it. The b-sides are all fairly sparse and open with mostly obscured lyrics. They fit with Milk & Kisses, but are lighter, less direct, and comparatively insubstantial. Much like the other latter-day singles, “Tishbite” itself is good, but the rest is second-rate.

The “Violaine” single from July 1996 is finally a bit more interesting. The b-sides of the first CD single version are both sparse and second-rate like the “Tishbite” b-sides, but the CD2 b-sides both shine. “Circling Girl” is a bit bigger and sounds more like a traditional Cocteaus song. “Alice” is quite cool, with great vocal frills and well-arranged layers.

Treasure Hiding also includes two tracks previously only released on Volume various-artists compilations in 1996. “Circling Girl” is a barely alternate mix from the b-side version, but just as good. “Touch Upon Touch” is sparse and incoherent but beautiful. It’s similar to most of the other b-sides from the era.

The BBC sessions from 1996 are both fairly good, but the only standout is “Golden-Vein”, which benefits from shimmering guitars and light percussion, making it better than the original acoustic version on Twinlights. Otherwise, there aren’t any other surprises, and nothing else is better than the album versions. It’s unclear if these sessions were recorded with the touring band, but the fact that I can’t tell isn’t exactly encouraging. “Fifty-Fifty Clown” (from Heaven or Las Vegas) is a welcome sight, but it sounds a bit tame and restrained compared to the album version. That said, all of the radio session versions lack depth, clarity, and refinement. Unfortunately, they also lack the intensity of a conventional live show, so there isn’t a lot going for them. “Violaine” might be the best of the bunch, but that’s just because it’s such a great song.

And that’s it! Well, sort of. There are a couple tracks missing, apparently due to “licensing and mastering issues”. (What could possibly constitute a “mastering issue”!?) “Need-Fire” from the Judge Dredd soundtrack (1995) is a bit of a loss. It’s more electronic than most Cocteaus songs and is almost as good as the average song on Milk & Kisses. The other missing song is a version of “Serpentskirt” with Faye Wong that was included as a bonus track in Hong Kong. Unless you’re a fan of Wong, you’ll barely notice the difference and you won’t miss it. It’s perhaps worth noting that Lullabies to Violaine, Volume 2 includes all the single tracks themselves, while Treasure Hiding skips them (except for the single edit of “Tishbite”) because they are redundant with the album versions. Nothing is actually missing. But as a result, the scores I’ve provided below for the singles mostly reflect the b-sides without much consideration for the single itself.

Cocteau Twins in the 90s were clearly a mixed bag. Four-Calendar Cafë was not their best work, but it was an interesting departure for them. Milk & Kisses was markedly better, so at least they ended on a high note. That said, unlike their peak in the 80s, the EPs, b-sides, and stray tracks from the 90s don’t match the quality of the albums from the same timeframes. Sometimes they get close or as good, but there are fewer exceptional tracks among them. However, there are still some gems if you dig deep enough. Not everything the Cocteaus touched was transcendent, but most of it still has a touch of magic.

Treasure Hiding: B-
Four-Calendar Café: C+
Milk & Kisses: B+
“Evangeline” single: C+
Snow EP: B- (bonus points for absurdity)
“Bluebeard” single: C
Twinlights EP: C
Otherness EP: D
“Tishbite” singles: C+
“Violaine” singles: B
Volume compilation tracks: B-
Mark Radcliffe BBC Session, 12 March 1996: B
Robert Elms BBC Session, 10 April 1996: B-

Friday, January 1, 2021

Chromatic Apparition - Sonnenfarbe and Preserve the Absurd EPs

Happy new year! I have not one but two new EPs to share! First is Sonnenfarbe, a collection of four semi-conventional songs about embracing your truth, escaping from darkness, and seeking a better place in the light:

Second is Preserve the Absurd, which is something like the shadow counterpart to Sonnenfarbe. It consists of five instrumentals that are rooted in spontaneity, improvisation, and experimentation:


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

2020 in Review

In this strange year without much live music, my writing here has obviously suffered. I still saw a few shows early in the year, and one during the early autumn lull, but nothing big. Last year was a record number of concerts and reviews for me, and I had no hope of matching that this year. However, I released my first solo song in 9 years and an album from my old band in Austin, and I’m about to release some more music, too. But like any other year, I’ve spent a ton of time listening to music, and like I did last year, I’ll share a few of my favorite releases from 2020.

Here they are, in alphabetical order:
  • The Asteroid No.4 - Northern Songs - The obvious Beatles references are well-done, but so are the Isn’t Anything-era My Bloody Valentine bits. This is a wonderful psych rock adventure.
  • Cremant Ding Dong - assorted singles - Great lyrics, great videos, great music, prominent cute cat. Hard to beat that.
  • Cup Collector - Cordum Hominum Renovatio and Morning Cofee and Tea - The former might be CC’s best electric guitar-based drone yet, and the latter is a successful experiment with layers of nylon-string guitar. I hope it’s not absurd to say that Cup Collector has become my favorite artist to listen to while doing lockdown yoga.
  • Elephant Stone - Hollow - Is this an album about the end of the world released before the pandemic reached full fury? Doesn’t matter, the music is rich and the storytelling is prescient. This is my favorite Elephant Stone album yet. The more explicitly pandemic-related “American Dream” single is also good, albeit a bit precious.
  • Holy Wave - Interloper - Their live shows were always great, and now they finally have an album that equals them. They’ve grown far from their garage roots and have embraced a wealth of new sounds, naturally mostly psychedelic in nature. The lyrics are a huge leap, too: “Maybe Then I Can Cry” hit me hard.
  • Hum - Inlet - Is this another album about the world ending, again presumably written and recorded before the pandemic? This album sounds huge and simultaneously vibrant. It’s their best yet.
  • Ian Fisher - American Standards - This adopted Austrian sure seems enamored with Nashville, but the music is tellingly much wider in scope than mainstream country or even the classic 70s pop hinted at in “AAA Station”. The lyrics are even more powerful and self-aware than Ian’s already-high standard. I can read the excellent title track five or six different ways, and I love that I don’t know which is right.
  • Melange & Jacco Gardner - “Ashokh” single - It’s such a shame they only recorded this one song and that the band broke up. It’s a superb, spritely, groovy jam on par with their wondrous Viento Bravo from 2017.
  • Monta at Odds - Zen Diagram and A Great Conjunction EPs - Both are majestic kosmiche space rock from my hometown of Kansas City, and the former successfully covers a great Tones on Tail song.
  • Nation of Language - Introduction, Presence - Is this pure 80s nostalgia? Yes, probably. But is it a crime to want to sound like Simple Minds or OMD? Certainly not!
  • Pia Fraus - Empty Parks - This sounds like an Estonian blend of Slowdive (especially their self-titled album from 2017), Stereolab, and Loveless, and obviously I rather enjoy it. I wish it was a bit punchier, but sometimes soft and warm is nice, too.
A few additional honorable mentions:
  • Khruangbin - Mordechai - Khruangbin seem incapable of making bad music, but this album is merely pleasant. It actually sounds more derivative than their previous albums, and some parts are a touch too silly. Their collaborative Texas Sun EP with Leon Bridges from earlier in the year was also an interesting aside, but where Bridges’ vocals shone, the lyrics didn’t.
  • Mietminderung - Tatsächliche Verhältnisse EP - Their tagline of “rock music in bureaucratically-inflected German generally about interpersonal relationships” really undersells them, but it hits a certain type of dry German humor on the head. The vocals are indeed a bit stiff, but the music is more adventurous. This is the last and best of the three EPs they’ve released this year.
  • Neil Young - Homegrown - The Archives Volume II collection is almost too big to handle, but this forgotten record is a condensed version of the best of the unreleased content. It’s not exactly great and I understand why he shelved it. Then again, it’s also idiosyncratic and emotionally complex, so it’s a shame that it took 46 years to release it. (I’m almost considering buying the box set anyway just for the wonderful CSNY versions of “Human Highway”, though.)
  • Perlee - Slow Creature EP - It starts slow and doesn’t really pick up much at all, but “Charlie’s Song” is quite good. The early-era Beach House vibes are heavy, but the harmonies are a nice extra touch.
And while I don’t like being rude, there were a few high-ish profile releases that I have to admit I was a bit disappointed by. Here are those:
  • Einstürzende Neubauten - Alles in Allem - I love Neubauten, but not this album. It lacks the creative energy and unpredictable spark of their finest works. It’s weirdly restrained and dour. I like the requiem for Rosa Luxemburg, though.
  • Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension - This seems like a retread of The Age of Adz, but with less variation. Some of the lyrics are nice, but I don’t really get it.
  • Other Lives - For Their Love - I really like the idea of this band, and I still think Tamer Animals is excellent, but this one sounds a bit stale. Much like Rituals from 2015, it sounds huge and cavernous, yet lacks anything memorable.
Lastly, there were again some excellent albums from (relatively) recent years that I missed before but picked up this year. Here are some of the best:
  • Lush - Blind Spot EP (2016) - Their only new music after reuniting, and it matches their classic sound in all the right ways.
  • Monta at Odds - Argentum Dreams (2018) - More great space rock with lovely 80s synth sounds, but also featuring Lawrence artist Your Friend!
  • Tocotronic - K.O.O.K. (1999) - Tocotonic took a while to grow on me. The lyrics are subtle and yet evocative. Musically, I think this is their album that’s mostly closed tuned to my tastes.
With any luck, live music will be a viable option again at some point in 2021!

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Cocteau Twins - The 4AD 80s albums

A couple weeks ago, I reviewed Lullabies to Violaine, Volume 1, a collection of all the Cocteau Twins’ EPs and singles on 4AD in the 80s. Now I’d like to cover the albums from the same period. The first few mirror the EPs and singles quite closely, but starting in 1986, they begin to diverge. The albums tend to be more focused in specific themes and sounds, and as such, they are a bit less wildly exciting, but still they represent thoroughly solid listening experiences in their longer forms.

Garlands was the first ever Cocteau Twins release in September 1982. It’s dark, post-punk, and gothic, and it’s the only album with bassist Will Heggie. The combination of heavy chorus bass riffs, pointed and thickly distorted lead guitar lines, heavy drum machine reverb, and lots of stuttered vocals makes for a rather harsh sound. It sounds strained and raw, and it doesn’t really vary very widely. I like the creative use of guitar delay, though, and the album sort of presages their later exploration, but it’s much more limited in scope.

Head Over Heels (released on Halloween 1983) is still dark and gothy, but it’s somewhat more exploratory. Most of the instrumentation and tone is similar to prior recordings, but with the addition of some keyboards and acoustic guitars. It was recorded as a duo after Heggie left, but there is still bass, presumably recorded by Robin Guthrie. The production is slightly richer and more vibrant. It’s right on the line of the original gothy sound and something new. “Sugar Hiccup” is of course excellent, but it sticks out a bit. (It fits on Sunburst and Snowblind a bit better.) “In the Gold Dust Rush” is also notably a step forward, and “Multifoiled” is surprisingly playful.

By the time Treasure was released in November 1984, Cocteau Twins had hit their stride. Treasure picks up about where The Spangle Maker EP left off, and even if it can’t quite match that level of consistency, it’s their first really good album. It’s also their first album with bassist Simon Raymonde. It finally shows them opening up and really coming into their own; it’s full of great guitar and keyboard sounds, and Elizabeth Fraser really started exploring the full power of her voice. Almost every song has something cool and creative going for it. “Ivo” is perhaps the most remarkable of the lot, and it’s such an awesome opening track. It starts all dark and spooky like their previous work, but then suddenly tumbles into something grand, full, and bombastic. That’s followed up with “Lorelei”, another solid song that starts right off with insistent guitar and bells, hearkening the coming of majestic new heights. It feels so lush, and Fraser’s voice sounds full of hushed anticipation. The album gets a bit weirder starting with “Beatrix”, and a few songs like “Cicely” and “Otterley” are just a bit too dark and dull. But right at the end of album closer “Domino”, they pull a nice trick and refresh themselves anew.

After a streak of incredible EPs, the band changed gears for Victorialand, released in April 1986. As Raymonde was busy with This Mortal Coil, it was recorded again as a duo. This time, though, there’s hardly any bass or even drums at all, but there is some saxophone from Richard Thomas of Dif Juz. Otherwise, it’s mostly just acoustic or shimmering electric guitar and vocals. The result is sparse and open but still pretty, which makes for a very chill and relaxing listen. Opener “Lazy Calm” takes some time to get going, but it expands beautifully. “Fluffy Tufts” and “Little Spacey” are quite pleasant, too. Just a few tracks like “Throughout the Dark Months of April and May” and “The Thinner the Air” are more overcast. The album is a bit short and feels a bit slight, especially after how much they crammed into each of the preceding releases. It feels like a distinct break from everything they’d done before, but it wouldn’t be the last time they’d explore these elements.

Right after the stunning Love’s Easy Tears EP came The Moon and the Melodies in November 1986. With Guthrie back in the fold, this album was also a collaboration with ambient composer Harold Budd. (Strangely it was credited to each of the four contributors as individuals.) Richard Thomas turns up again on sax, too. The result is not at all like Love’s Easy Tears; it’s much closer to Victorialand, but with the notable addition of particularly expressive piano. Most of the album is open, broadly ambient, and instrumental. “Memory Gongs” represents the best of that bunch; it’s just a cool atmosphere, like walking on a frozen pond in the woods, with piano and little synth noises dripping down on the icy splendor. The rest of the album (“Sea, Swallow Me”, “Eyes Are Mosaics”, “She Will Destroy You”) is like normal Cocteaus but chiller, lighter, and more shimmery, but still further on the ambient spectrum than usual. The whole concept feels like a risk, and even if it isn’t stellar across the board, it’s still quite good. “Sea, Swallow Me” is great by any standard. Fraser’s vocals are big and dramatic, and the music swells and shines right in step. The album is not as weird or dark or even as mysterious as their prior work, but the expansiveness and grandiosity can still be found here and there. The latter half of the album is maybe a bit too sparse, but “Ooze Out and Away, Onehow” finally turns it up right before the end.

Cocteau Twins finally took some time off at that point. They stopped releasing EPs for the next seven years, and they took a break from touring as well. Their next release was Blue Bell Knoll in September 1988. If this was the condensed best of two years of work, it shows. It’s refined, complex, and exciting, but also bright, beautiful, and almost entirely upbeat. It would seem the band had access to a modest budget, and they made great use of it. It’s not quite as varied and dynamic as Treasure or their best EPs, but it is a return to the forms of those releases. “Blue Bell Knoll” starts the album off on a high note, entrancing the listener with the rolling harpsichord sound. “Carolyn’s Fingers” is one of their all-time best. The heights of Fraser’s voice are wondrous and the music is gorgeous. “For Phoebe Still a Baby” brings the energy down a notch, but it’s still just as pretty. “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat” might be their first sequencer-driven song, and it presages the full, soft beauty of Heaven or Las Vegas. I love the weird spacey sounds, too. The album might rely on a few tried and true formulas (acoustic guitar strums and delay-laden electric arpeggios), but there’s nothing wrong with that when the results are this good.

Heaven or Las Vegas, released in September 1990, is the peak of Cocteau Twins. It’s dream pop at it’s finest. It’s full, stunning, and luscious, with a huge sound, excellent production, and an obviously good budget. It’s the best they’d ever do in the album format. The band was starting to fracture, and this was their last album for 4AD, but you can hardly tell. It’s their most accessible, mainstream, and pop-oriented work, yet doesn’t compromise their vision, scope, or grandeur. It’s also their dance-friendliest music. Every song has something of a driving pulse laying the groundwork for the ethereal layers. It’s also notable for lyrics that started to move back into decipherable territory. The influence of a newborn baby is maybe even discernible. “Cherry-Coloured Funk” is a great title, even if I wouldn’t call it funk, but the “cherry-coloured” part seems to fit. “Fifty-Fifty Clown” and “Road, River and Rail” are slightly cloudier and uncertain, but still lovely. “Heaven or Las Vegas” is one of their best, another one of their songs that just keeps pouring down incredible sounds and vocal lines. “Fotzepolitic” and “Wolf in the Breast” manage similar feats without getting repetitive. Closer “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” starts slow and haunting with the characteristic feedback wails, but then widens into a beautiful chiming chorus. This is the band at the peak of their talents, and unfortunately they’d never quite reach them again.

In their streak of albums for 4AD, Cocteau Twins managed to consistently expand their range, and almost every album was an improvement over the last. It must’ve been magical to see where they’d go next. They ended up in a very different place than where they began, and it’s fascinating to see the progression. It’s also a pleasure to hear how the albums and EPs fit together and show different sides of the band. Heaven of Las Vegas might be rightfully heralded as a masterpiece, but there’s plenty of other good music to be found here as well.

Garlands: C
Head Over Heels: C+
Treasure: B+
Victorialand: B-
The Moon and the Melodies: B
Blue Bell Knoll: A-
Heaven or Las Vegas: A+