Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sweet Tooth Jukebox: Cocteau Twins

Time for another Sweet Tooth Jukebox dispatch, you guys. Up next: Cocteau Twins, the trio from the Whitest Ever Planet, whose ethereal, otherworldly, transcendent, and [INSERT HIFALUTIN ADJECTIVE HERE] music made grown men cry, grown women wonder where all the heroes went, and grown children wet the bed.

The Cocteaus emerged out of the post-punk UK scene, taking their cues from the Banshees, Joy Division, and the other usual suspects, but they quickly developed into their own inimitable beast, putting out countless dark, blissful, gossamer singles and a steady stream of increasingly jaw-dropping albums. Their first full-length Garlands came out in 1982 and their last (Milk and Kisses) dropped in 1996. While they were with us, there was no more dependable band in the universe--fans always knew there would be new material if not every year then at least every other year. Then, as the nineties began drawing to a close, and after fourteen years together and, apparently, quite a bit of psychodrama, they broke up and, with the exception of one appearance at Coachella that almost happened in 2004 before singer Elizabeth Fraser backed out, they've never looked back.

The Cocteaus are without a doubt one of the most influential bands in the modern era--they basically invented shoegazing, and they've informed the sound of countless artists, everyone from Grimes, Animal Collective, and Beach House to Portishead, Bon Iver, My Bloody Valentine, Chvrches, and even the Internet's favorite punching back Lana Del Rey. (That's right, I said it.) Prince was a fan, and so was Madonna. Who else can say that? Not me.

I could wax on and on about Scotland's pastiest-ever exports, but I'm going to make it easier on myself and you by just stone cold reprinting an essay I wrote for The Nervous Breakdown a few years ago on Elizabeth Fraser, chanteuse extraordinaire and beautiful oddball. I can't really say it any better now than I did then. Enjoy:


The late eighties were a great time to be a fanboy of weirdo new wave ladysingers from outer space (mainly Britain). It seemed like every time you turned on your new favorite show, 120 Minutes, some wackadoodle dame dripping with otherworldly moxie was popping up sporting a leotard or a tutu or a completely bald head, leaving your mouth gaping in wonder at the sheer brilliance of it all. You had your helium-voiced ethereal fantasist (Kate Bush), your ferocious and feline Weimar Republic throwback/riding crop enthusiast (Siouxsie Sioux), your tiny elfin powder keg (Bjork of the Sugarcubes), your scary trannie android (Annie Lennox of Eurythmics), and your testy and tempestuous ingénue (Sinead O’Connor). All of these ladies had allure to burn and the musical chops to back it all up.

But there was one lady, from a very distant star (Grangemouth, Scotland), who truly stood head and shoulders above the rest in what she brought to the table. Not only was Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins an alabaster-skinned ice princess with a mystifying hairstyle--she also had one of the most gorgeous voices to which pop music had ever born witness. With a staggering range that took it from the gutter to the stars in effortless swoops, and an easy way with melody and multi-tracked harmonies, Fraser’s voice was downright operatic in the sense that, unlike all of her peers, she sounded as if she could actually acquit herself quite nicely in an actual opera. (Of course, it would be one performed by an orchestra of hologram robots and staged on the distant planet of Mongo, but it would still be an opera.)

The first glimpse I got of Elizabeth Fraser was in 1988, when the video for “Carolyn’s Fingers,” a single from Blue Bell Knoll, the Cocteau Twins’ fifth album—and the first to get major label distribution in the U.S.—was in regular rotation on MTV’s “alternative” shows, such as the aforementioned 120 Minutes and its daytime counterpart PostModern MTV. She was exquisitely weird-looking--her short mess of kinky hair was tamed with Dep (or whatever) and styled (sort of) atop her head like a lopsided valentine, and she stood against a spectral blue background dressed in an all-white ensemble so un-rock-‘n-roll that Ms. Fraser wouldn’t have looked out of place if she’d worn it to an after-service luncheon down at the Presbyterian church. Her bandmates, guitarist Robin Guthrie and bassist Simon Raymonde, were also alluringly pale and otherworldly, but this was Elizabeth’s show.

Her voice stopped me in my tracks, as did her ice blue eyes and her soft, smiling face. And the song itself was a gorgeous wash of glacial guitar and epic, angelic vocals beamed in from the celestial moons of Tatooine or some shit. But what were these mysterious words this woman was uttering that sounded so unlike any language I’d ever heard? Was she singing in Klingon? Elvish? Scottish?

After hearing this celestial chorale, I of course spent the next few months feverishly tracking down and buying up any and all Cocteau Twins imports I could get my sweaty little teenage hands on. And as I immersed myself in her band’s spacey, cold-to-the-touch back catalog, I learned one simple truth--there was no way Liz Fraser was singing any human language. She was just forming her mouth into sounds that sounded good and letting those sounds be the lyrics. Album after album, song after song, there was no telling what on earth was happening in her world. Was she singing about gumdrops and unicorns? Egg drop soup? Gang warfare? Yes. All of these things. Or none of them, maybe? Who knew? I had to travel far back in time, to the dark, primordial year of 1982, in order to hear Ms. Fraser utter any word you would find in a dictionary. A few songs on first album Garlands, amid all the twittery yelping and staccato-hiccup vocals Liz was once wont to engage in, included a handful of real phrases of English: “stars in my eyes, stars at my feet” – “I could die in a rosary” – “winged water, feathered river”. Your typical early Goth pap-- nothing that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bauhaus song. But after flirting with human language early on, Elizabeth Fraser dove headfirst down the rabbit hole and spent the rest of the eighties throwing the world’s linguists for a loop.

This was a revelation: that someone could dispense with language altogether and just use their voice as an instrument. It was also a singular self-effacement in the context of a decade that gave us such strong "Look at me!" attention hogs as Morrissey, Robert Smith of the Cure, and, yes, the ladies mentioned in the first paragraph above, not to mention the mainstream Queen Bees of the Me-decade like Madonna, Boy George, and Bono. We may not have been able to always figure out what all these singers were going on and on about (what’s a Lovecat, for example?), but they were most definitely singing real words used to convey any number of real meanings. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” – “Let’s Go to Bed” – “Love and Anger” – the singers behind all of these songs, delightfully weird as they may have been, were, when it came down to it, relatable as humans.

But Elizabeth Fraser? She was a blurry blotch of brilliant ambiguity, an otherworldly seraph floating on a cloud of compelling, vertiginous vagueness and hiding behind a veil of hyper-imaginative deflection. Liz gave away nothing about herself in her lyrics. Even her song titles, though written in Roman letters, were bizarre transmissions from an outer-galactic polar volcano, though they were mercifully transcribed into English on the record sleeves: “A Kissed-out Red Floatboat”? “Cherry-Coloured Funk”? “The Itchy Glowbo Blow”? “Ella Megalast Burls Forever”? Whatever are we to make of these phrases, Elizabeth? Sure, sometimes she came down to earth and threw us a bone with a “Love’s Easy Tears” or a “Sigh’s Smell of Farewell,” or, you know, perhaps a “Blood Bitch,” just to prove that she’s human like the rest of us (and, at heart, an adorable little Goth). But then she’d go all sphinx-like once again with ditties like “Fotzepolitic” or “Aikea-Guinea.”

In contrast to her contemporaries, Elizabeth Fraser was a completely blank slate. The only entry-point into Liz’s world was her voice. No one could possibly know what that voice was saying, but it sure was beautiful. Therefore, the songs—these gorgeous, majestic, spine-tingling cathedrals of sound—could mean whatever you wanted them to mean. Did you just get dumped? Liz understands. Grandma died? Liz’ll take care of it. Failed your driver’s test? Liz has you covered. Coming to terms with your terrible homosexuality? Let Liz handle it. Just woke up with blood on your hands in a strange hotel room? Liz knows and she’ll make it better. (You should probably call your lawyer, though.)

Interestingly, it was when Liz started peppering her songs with more recognizable English on the Cocteau’s 1993 album Four Calendar Café that the internal dynamics within the band started fraying. On several tracks on the album, Elizabeth, who was romantically involved and had a child with guitarist Robin Guthrie, sang of domestic strife and romantic ambivalence. “Are you the right man for me/Or are you toxic for me?” she sang on single “Bluebeard.” "Is this what my body says? Use me, drain me, fall around me," she sighed on "Theft, and Wandering Around Lost." Though she employed a bit of English on the band’s final album, 1996’s Milk and Kisses, she largely reentered the Cloud of Lyrical Impenetrability on most of the songs such as “Eperdu,” “Tishbite,” and “Violaine.” After this last triumphant album, Fraser and Guthrie’s relationship, as well as the band they had made together, imploded and receded into legend.

The Cocteau Twins released eight albums, eighteen singles and EPs, and a number of collaborative recordings during their fourteen-year run from 1982 to 1996. (The most memorable of the latter, by the way, is Liz and Guthrie’s cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren,” which you should watch immediately. Do it now.) That’s a lot of songs, very few of which giving us even the slightest clue as to the Mystery of Liz. To this day Elizabeth Fraser remains an enigma wrapped in a riddle folded into a puzzle and then combined with a larger riddle and magically reduced to a smaller but still quite complicated puzzle that morphs into a conundrum that then disappears into a black hole. This is obvious.

Criminally, Ms. Fraser hasn’t released a solo album in the sixteen years since she was a Cocteau Twin, with her most high profile musical outing being the three tracks she sang on Massive Attack’s 1998 album Mezzanine. For years it has been rumored that she was working on a solo album for Blanco y Negro records, but nothing has ever materialized. She released one song called “Underwater” in 2000, but nobody heard it because it was a limited edition of only 200 copies.

Some exciting news came in 2005 when it was announced that the reformed Cocteau Twins would be headlining the Coachella Festival in California. But it was not to be--Elizabeth pulled out of the appearance after realizing she simply couldn’t face working with her ex-bandmates anymore. In November of 2009 she released a lovely song called “Moses” as a tribute to a friend who had recently died, and chatter about a solo album began anew. But now here we are in 2012 2014, and it’s still radio silence from Our Lady Fraser.

In a 2009 interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Liz, was as hard to reach as ever, though for once, she laid out in plain English what was behind all her otherworldly warblings:

She has always struggled to write lyrics, she says, but suddenly something will click and she “goes with the sound and the joy” – that’s why she sings sounds and words that have no meaning, of which she can only make sense later. As she puts it, “I can’t act. I can’t lie.”

So when you were singing along with Liz Fraser as she chirruped some flibberty lyrical nonsense in whatever song—was that a Cherry Coke mention in “Iceblink Luck”? A reference to Sudan in “I Wear Your Ring”? Something about lettuce leaves and Lois Lane in “Summerhead”?—she didn’t know what she was saying any more than you did. Perfect.

Elizabeth Fraser may not have known what her subconscious was conveying in the vast majority of the songs she sang, but she still sang like she meant every word.

Come back, Liz. It's been way too long, and right now the world needs more of your sublime cherry-coloured funk. Or, you know, whatever you want to call it.

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