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+

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Cocteau Twins - Lullabies to Violaine, Volume 1 (2005)

Discovering Cocteau Twins is like finding a massive treasure chest that’s barely hidden in the woods, and there’s always more there. I’ve still never found another band that quite matches their bizarre beauty and raw emotive force (and I’ve tried!). The combination of Elizabeth Fraser’s expressive voice and unusual delivery with Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde’s otherworldly instrumentation is magical. The fact that they consistently relied on drum machines takes nothing away from the total wonder of their sound. It took me years to fully appreciate them, but they’ve become one of my absolute favorites.

Cocteau Twins came from the era where EPs were an important format, and they made full use of them. In fact, much of their best music can only be found on them. Thankfully, in 2005 they released Lullabies to Violaine, a collection of all of their EPs and singles spread over four CDs. The first volume covers the 80s, which begins with their early recordings with founding bassist Will Heggie and continues through their prime years up to the release of their best album, Heaven or Las Vegas (1990). In some ways, these two discs are like a greatest hits compilation. They roughly follow the progression of the albums, but that breaks down around 1986. Here I will review this first volume and the EPs it contains.

Lullabies was the band’s first EP, released just after their debut album Garlands in October 1982. Like the album, the EP is very gothy and post-punk and sounds quite indebted to Siouxsie & the Banshees or The Cure from the same era. The music is aggressive and energetic, but also simpler than what would follow. Heggie’s heavily chorused bass and Guthrie’s spidery guitar form the basis for Fraser to exorcise her demons over. Her lyrics are mostly understandable, but sound dark and esoteric. It’s not the most engaging or comforting listen. “Feathers-Oars-Blades” is a strong and upbeat opener, but the rest doesn’t match it.

Peppermint Pig came in March 1983 and continued the same thread as the first two releases. It was the last release with Heggie but their first to feature prominent keyboards. Otherwise it isn’t particularly compelling, and it sounds flatter and less well-developed than their earlier and later recordings. There’s more space, but in an unwelcome, off-putting way. All three tracks are very similar. The rare involvement of an outside producer (Alan Rankine) is telling and was obviously a mistake. The compilation has the edited 7" version of the title track, but the 12" just features a longer intro with more keyboards and distorted guitar, so not much is missing.

Sunburst and Snowblind, released in November 1983, followed right after Head over Heels and is something of an extension of it. The both share “Sugar Hiccup”, the first truly awesome Cocteau Twins song. Sunburst is a huge leap over their previous work, and it’s even better than Head over Heels. They finally started to find their stride despite (or perhaps because of?) the loss of Heggie. Fraser’s vocals became more oblique and more about mood and texture than specific words. Guthrie explored more keyboards and a more ethereal, brighter, and more expansive sound removed from their gothy roots. From this point on, the meaning of their songs became less about the content of the lyrics and more about the emotions that sweep you along with the music. “Sugar Hiccup” isn’t exactly upbeat, but it’s grand and majestic. The choral sound at the end is just lovely. “From the Flagstones” is slower but still comes across as big and dramatic, like walking along the ramparts of a castle. It too features the comforting choral synths, but brings back the heavy chorus on the bass. “Hithero” and “Because of Whirl-Jack” are both driving but tense, and they aren’t quite at the same level. They seem caught between the old and new styles.

The Spangle Maker from April 1984 was the band’s first release with Simon Raymonde on bass. It’s a resounding success and all three tracks are great. “The Spangle Maker” features impressive feedback squalls over what sounds like a huge open landscape. It’s like a slowly brewing storm with strong winds in a desert canyon. Then it finally bursts into a huge final section with choral effects and big keyboards. “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” is more immediate and strident from the start. It’s full of great layered vocal parts, delightful little synth bells, and lots of little guitar effect touches. It’s pure dream pop bliss, and it’s no surprise that it was their biggest single. The compilation features a unique mix, but it’s the best version. The 7" version is similar but shorter, and although the 12" version starts with an extra twinkly section, the mix is less full and not quite as good. “Pepper-Tree” is the band’s first truly bizarre track. Fraser’s vocals are impressively strange; she sounds like an enchanted woodland fairy. The song is like wandering through a ghostly rainforest cave. It’s spooky, mysterious, and fairly removed from pop music, but the experimentation and atmosphere pay off.

1985 was Cocteau Twins’ first year without an album, but they still managed to release three EPs, all of which reveal the band at the height of their powers. Aikea-Guinea came first in March, and it’s practically perfect from start to finish. The title track is again bright, grand, otherworldly, uplifting, and full of layers and beautiful but totally incomprehensible spirals of vocals. It sounds like brilliant birds in flight in the bright springtime sun. The compilation version is a unique mix, but the only difference from the original is that it jumps in cold instead of fading in. “Kookaburra” is similar and very upbeat, but with more shadowy sections. It sounds like a rushing horseride through the fields and then into the woods. The keyboards in particular remind me of The Cure from the same era. “Quisquose” starts darker, with anguished vocals and colossal echo on the keyboard parts, but then it shifts into a brighter section with superb crystalline guitar delay. It’s like a battle between light and darkness or an intense internal conflict. “Rococo” starts minimal, hesitant, distant, and somewhat peaceful, like the calm before a storm or a battle, then breaks into a much bigger, louder, heavier, aggressive section. It’s deceptive, but the sense of space is excellent. It’s also a rare instrumental.

Tiny Dynamine came next in November 1985. It’s full of fantastic sounds and effectively conveyed emotions without relying on lexical content, even if it doesn’t quite match the mind-blowing excitement of the previous two EPs. “Pink Orange Red” starts slow, spacey, and minimal and then expands beautifully with a hint of darkness and regret, but of course the lyrics are the names of butterflies or something. It’s full of towers of delayed guitar and sounds like the twists and turns of some ancient epic. “Ribbed and Veined”, another lush instrumental, has more of the great crystalline dripping guitar parts. It sounds like a rainforest atmosphere, and perhaps there’s a temple or some forgotten structure hidden within where the electronic piano sound comes in. “Plain Tiger” isn’t quite as standout but still has an intriguing blend of light and dark atmospheres. The highlight is the great vocal parts. The mood is conflicted: the first part is tense, the second is anguished, and it’s not until the end that it switches nicely into a more open (and rare) guitar pseudo-solo. It feels like the coming of a prophet or a good omen. “Sultitan Itan” is a rarer example of starting bright and then getting darker; it starts simple and pretty, full of soft bass and guitars, but switches to more intense, dramatic sections.

Echoes in a Shallow Bay, recorded at the same time as Tiny Dynamine and released just a couple weeks after it, is more experimental, less pop, and overall somewhat darker. It’s not as purely awe-inspiring, but it’s still good. “Great Spangled Fritillary” starts weird and uncomfortable, like some mysterious, dark, and cloudy alien planet. It picks up a bit, as if you’ve encountered a strange artifact or an unexpected inhabitant, and it’s full of intriguing sounds. “Melonella” is a dramatic recital of moth names, which is amusingly aggressive and intense for such absurd lyrics! It jumps right in, like preparations or ritual chanting before a battle or escape. Other parts calm down a bit, as if life returns to normal and there is space to find some beauty in the cracks. “Pale Clouded White” is another faster-paced but somewhat darker song. It has a full sound with distant guitar squalls, pounding keyboards and drums, and acoustic guitar strums and choral synth in the choruses. It sounds like warning sirens and high alert, again like running hastily from some threat. “Eggs and Their Shells” is also full of strange and awesome sounds, like wind rushing by towering buildings shining in the sun in a vast, lonesome expanse. It’s not quite as dramatic, though, and doesn’t move like most of the others.

Love’s Easy Tears, from October 1986, is a distinct break between two more subdued and almost ambient albums (Victorialand and The Moon and the Melodies with Harold Budd). It’s closer to Treasure or especially Blue Bell Knoll. They apparently saved all the dramatic, radiant, and upbeat songs that they had for this EP, and the result is flawless. The title track, beautiful and dramatic, is one of their absolute best. Incredible vocals and lush guitars just keep raining down. “Those Eyes, That Mouth” is also fairly upbeat and shimmering, but a bit more driving. It has less variation, but pulses prettily and brightly with chiming guitars and some strange seagull effects. “Sigh’s Smell of Farewell” is mellower and softer, again with great vocal layers. It’s subtler and less overwhelming but still shimmering and clear, and it expands into something bigger halfway through with nice phasing and a grand expanse. “Orange Appled” might be my favorite of them all. It starts strident and bold with great keyboards and expands with bells and vocal layers. It reminds me of a shining palatial metropolis. The bridge switches into an awesome alternate swirling mode, like riding a train through a tunnel in a mountain.

From then on, the frequency of releases took a sharp downturn. The last release on the compilation is the "Iceblink Luck" single from August 1990. The title track is a slightly edited version of the track from the supreme Heaven of Las Vegas. It’s poppy and accessible, and the words are even mostly understandable as was common for that phase. It has the best production values of their career and sounds incredibly detailed. “Mizake the Mizan” is similarly well-produced but is less dramatic and upbeat. It’s conspicuously inconspicuous. “Watchlar” is an unusually electronic track, but it also just kind of carries on without ever really picking up. The single itself is great but the b-sides aren’t really notable; it’s their first release with tracks that feel like just b-sides.

That’s the end of the compilation; unfortunately it starts and ends on lesser notes, but the jungles within are where the real treasure is. However, there were just a few additional tracks from the era that never made it to an album or an EP, and most of them were collected on an extra disc of the Cocteau Twins Singles Collection from 1991. Unfortunately, all four of the tracks on it are rather inessential. “Dials”, the b-side of the "Heaven or Las Vegas" single, and “The High Monkey-Monk”, from a Melody Maker compilation in 1990, both feature great production, but are fairly sparse and open. They sound like second-rate b-sides. “Crushed”, from the Lonely Is an Eyesore compilation in 1987, fits in with Love’s Easy Tears or Blue Bell Knoll, but doesn’t quite match either. It’s the best of the bonus disc, but merely a chill, pleasant stroll. The instrumental version of “Oomingmak” is airy and pretty but offers nothing over the original from Victorialand.

The last stray track is “Millimillenary”, originally from the NME Department of Enjoyment cassette in 1984, but also available on The Pink Opaque best-of in 1986. It’s as strong as the best of Treasure or maybe even The Spangle Maker. It’s less experimental and unusually straightforward and classic pop oriented in its arrangement and structure, but it completely works. It also reminds me of contemporaneous output from The Cure.

Cocteau Twins released some incredible albums in their day, but their run of EPs from Sunburst and Snowblind through Love’s Easy Tears gives even Heaven or Las Vegas a run for its money. This collection is unbeatable in terms of the variety of sounds, mood, and atmospheres. After going on hiatus for a couple years after that album and the ground covered by this compilation, they returned to release another series of EPs and singles (compiled on the second volume of Lullabies to Violaine) alongside two more albums (all compiled on the Treasure Hiding compilation), but they never again quite reached these heights. At least we have this wonderful collection that nicely assembles their finest glories.

Lullabies to Violaine, Volume 1: A
Lullabies EP: B-
Peppermint Pig EP: C-
Sunburst and Snowblind EP: B+
The Spangle Maker EP: A+
Aikea-Guinea EP: A+
Tiny Dynamine EP: A-
Echoes in a Shallow Bay EP: B
Love’s Easy Tears EP: A+
"Iceblink Luck" single: B-
Cocteau Twins Singles Collection Disc 10: C
“Millimillenary”: A-

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Cremant Ding Dong - "Es muss nicht immer alles wachsen" (2020)

It’s rare that I come across a new song where the individual elements of the music, lyrics, and video all blow me away. Cremant Ding Dong only have four songs to their credit so far, but they’ve already found their stride. Their new single “Es muss nicht immer alles wachsen” is their best yet.

First, the music: it’s solid synthpop with loads of great sounds and angular guitar bits. It’s upbeat and energetic with a well-constructed arrangement. Even better are the lyrics. The whole thing is a humorous takedown of capitalist arguments in an era of big business obliviousness to human suffering. The title and chorus translates to “not everything has to always grow”, and the rest of the lyrics describe things that don’t really need to grow forever (businesses, markets, power, toe nails, capital) as well as a few things that should keep growing (flowers, children, hair, love, trust). It’s clever, playful, and insightful all at once.

And then there’s the video! It’s pure joy. The most notable feature is an adorable cat, but it’s also full of whimsical visual effects and colors. The band is present, but focus more on grooving and playing around than on showing off their individual looks or expensive equipment. A synthesizer makes a brief appearance, and a few shots appear to be from a performance on a stage (such a foreign concept!), but the emphasis is more on movement and color.

The single is available on Bandcamp here and the video can be seen here. The rest of the band’s songs are in a similar style and are also quite good, in particular “Testergebnis”, a song about waiting for Coronavirus test results.

Score: A+

P.S. Thanks to Lutz for the tip!