The Cocteau Twins
Lullabies to Violaine, Vol. 1-2
A- / B
hree is, with very little doubt, the magic number; De La Soul said it, but just think about the mystical power of the rock trio: the Minutemen, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Young Marble Giants, the Police (who ostensibly suck, but), Dinosaur Jr., Young People, Cream. And despite their name, the Cocteau Twins. There are three dimensions. Three solves the binary opposition two creates. Mind, body, spirit, ménage a trois; “I will grant you three wishes.” In numerology, it’s associated with creativity. There are only three-legged animals in dick jokes. In the Tao Te Ching, Laozi said “Tao begets One, One begets Two, Two begets Three and Three begets all things.” No idea what he’s talking about there, but it does go to at least partially explain—in that slippery way cosmic coincidences and spiritual metaphors do—the impenetrable magic of the Cocteau Twins.
The Scottish band made some great albums (1989’s Heaven or Las Vegas is my personal favorite), but like a lot of 80s UK groups, you wouldn’t get the full picture without hearing the EPs. Though the Stars and Topsoil collection provided a handful of stray tracks from their “first phase” on 4AD from 1982-1990, the material on Lullabies to Violane 1 had only been previously and properly collected on the untitled singles box set, a maroon cube with small gold lettering stamped on a squat black strip—COCTEAU TWINS—filled with 10 separate discs, and to each, their own micro-variation on the band’s sound. (The second set handles the Capitol years, through 1996’s Violane.)
4AD has had a weird, lingering reputation for being a “goth” label, but the Cocteaus are about as goth as say, Three 6 Mafia; the tag is theoretically accurate, but it does more harm than good. Really, the Cocteau Twins overlapped post-punk and dream-pop signifiers; they manage to sound earthy and ethereal, arty and sensuous at the same time. Early Cocteau Twins material is remarkably jagged. Some of Lullabies 1 sounds like Joy Division snorting the Aurora Borealis and stomping 1,000 effects pedals with one foot, guitars clanging against insistent drum machine beats and spiraling off into cold velvet caverns; purple can be a darker color than grey—think about it. The lighter, Arctic-flavored hep-new-age phase of the band that tends to give writers adjectival diarrhea in search of synonyms for “lush” doesn’t really start showing up until later on in the 80s.
When writers use Kate Bush to talk about oddly erotic, unearthly female vocals, they seem to actually describe Liz Fraser. Bush is confident and direct—she’s an albatross or a hawk—while Fraser’s pan-ethnic coo flutters around like a parakeet or something more exotic; sudden, unpredictable, and enchanting. Sometimes the words are gibberish, sometimes they’re just non-sequiturs; try playing a game of Telephone with her lyrics, you’ll see what I mean—she’s more or less unintelligible.
The work of guitarist Robin Guthrie and bassist Simon Raymonde (who joined in 1984 on Treasure) is equally indispensable to the trinity. Guthrie’s guitar sound—rippling, oblique, and never without a surreal gloss of effects—undoubtedly prefigured My Bloody Valentine, but his aesthetic ultimately has a colder, glassier sound more dynamic and expansive than MBV’s under-the-covers feel. Futhermore, the band wrote all the songs and produced the records together; if Fraser is the Siren, Guthrie and Raymond are the rocks. Without them, the trick wouldn’t work.
Lullabies 2 isn’t quite as engaging as the first set—I would be remiss if I didn’t publicly complain/have a laugh about their covers of “Frosty the Snowman” and “Winter Wonderland” recorded shortly after the band left 4AD and Guthrie was at the depths of his substance abuse—but honestly, the quality of the entirety of their output is remarkably high and doesn’t really seem to get discussed often enough. The full-package ideal of Lullabies to Violane might obscure some of the pacing and singular flavors of each EP, but even if it’s an economical move, it’s hard not to celebrate it; the Cocteau Twins made some of the most gorgeous, unassumingly adventurous, and intoxicating music of their era. (Now, allow me my bad punch line)—three cheers to that.