Jul. 6th, 2014

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My daughter, Amélie turns two years old today, which was how old I became when the Cocteau Twins' 1982 debut LP, Garlands was released. The album was released in June, my birthday is in November. Garlands does not sound like a summer record.

Kind of like how Amélie doesn't seem like a summer baby. Compared to her big sister, Madeline, she's moodier and those moods are more intense. The older girl is – and has always been – more laid back. It makes me think these two were born in seasons opposite their dispositions.

Garlands openers "Blood Bitch" and "Wax And Wane" were played fairly often at Ceremony when the night still existed, I still attended and it still had a couple of old school DJs. "Grail Overfloweth" seems to be a favourite of the mixmakers on 8Tracks.

For me to reiterate the history of those group would be pointless here. Cocteau Twins have one of the most comprehensive band websites online and the page for Garlands is no exception. As far as I'm concerned, this is what a band website should look like and how it should function. Funny how a group who disbanded over fifteen years ago and who had a reputation for being media-shy and somewhat enigmatic is so open in the digital age.

I bought my copy of Garlands from the used bin at Eide's Music in Pittsburgh's Strip District. According to the sticker still affixed to the case, it cost me $7.50 plus tax. Since I own the United States version, the album barely clocks in at 33 minutes – almost an EP rather than an album. Canada and the United Kingdom got more robust releases (if you purchased the cassette or compact disc).

When I think of Cocteau Twins, the words "primarily purveyors of dream pop" generally come to mind. However, Garlands is very post-punk. Elizabeth Frasier's voice is unmistakably distinctive, but it is a shock to have it surrounded by spidery basslines and creaky moaning-organ guitars. The drum machine, of course, remained a fixture but became less lo-fidelity as the years went on. In some respects, it sounds like a Siouxsie & the Banshees album from around the same era with doses of Metal Box Public Image Ltd.

I am always intrigued by debut albums by bands with a generous discography. When a group releases enough material, they nearly always become their own subgenre. To go all the way back to the beginning and to be able to easily pick out roots and influences is like being in a time warp. Yes, I can see the future, but what would it have been like to buy this record in 1982 when it was the only one in existence?

Well, it would have been like buying a record by a new band, obviously. Then, ten years later, when one was listening to Heaven or Las Vegas and waiting for Four Calendar Café to come out you could say, "wow! This band has been around for ten years!" That seems to be how it plays out: I'm looking at albums that were released when I was a teenager and despite the obvious fact that time marches on, still find myself having to accept the fact that, yes, time has passed and albums I considered new are now thought or as "classics" or "gold" or merely "archival." Then again, I buy albums from when I was younger than that – if I was even born at all. I never found my parents music collection all that great, despite containing music from similar years as my collection, my music version of the 1980s sounds nothing like theirs did.

My daughters will probably just think it odd that I still buy physical media and go through the trouble of converting it to digital instead of just buying digital in the first place.

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Released in August of 1983, one year and two months after Garlands, Head Over Heels opens with a thunderclap of a drum machine beat. "When Mama Was Moth" is easily one of the Cocteau Twins darkest and most intense songs. It is heavy drumbeats, a swirl of Robin Guthrie's guitar distorted by flange and reverb and Elizabeth Frazier's voice wailing through the cacophony. Becoming a duo – bassist Will Heggie had left and Simon Raymonde had yet to join – seemed to make the group stronger, more intense.

During a brief period of time when I was DJing Ceremony with some regularity (though not a regular and never to become one), I played "When Mama Was Moth" early in the night followed by "Birds of Death" by Diamanda Galás. The two songs work very well together, though neither is particularly danceable. Of course, when the club first opens, no one wants to dance anyhow. In the first hour of any goth night, you set the atmosphere while people get their drink on. Two or three beers or Kamakazees in and you've got the black-clad masses shuffling out to the dance floor (and wanting to hear singles and 12-inch edits).

Someone simply referred to as "Ally" is thanked in the liner notes for the saxophone in "Five Ten Fiftyfold." I don’t generally consider the saxophone a "creepy" instrument…until I hear it in this song (and "Sweethome Under White Clouds" by the Virgin Prunes…and "In Fear of Fear" by Bauhaus…).

"Sugar Hiccup" is downright pastoral compared to its two predecessors. Knowing now what was to come, it nods to a future full of "Fluffy Tufts," "Pearly DewDrops' Drops" and "Frou Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires." Track 4, "In Our Angelhood" frantically returns the album to status quo.

Despite retaining and, in most cases, increasing the darkness of Garlands, there's an emerging atmospheric and ethereal quality to Head Over Heels which wasn't present before. Perhaps it is all of the effects on the instruments or the fact that Frazier is mostly abandoning the English language in her lyrics, but this album was a big step.

Regarding the singing and lyrics (or perceived lack thereof), one only catches recognisable words in flashes on this album. "Multifoiled" sounds like post-punk jazz, with the title being the only comprehensible word sung in the song. Elsewhere, it's all scat-singing. And "Multifoiled" is hardly unique in having the title drop being the only recognisable thing sung during the song. Every other song I've mentioned – "When Mama Was Moth," "Five Ten Fiftyfold," "Sugar Hiccup" and "In Our Angelhood" is the same way. If lyrics are a painting, we're looking at a piece of impressionism or surrealism when popular music usually demands obvious abstractions or flat out realism.

Head Over Heels is five minutes longer than Garlands, but feels much shorter. I find myself speeding through these songs, many of them in ¾, drawn in and then quickly hurried out of the other side. Final track "Musette And Drums" quickly fades out and I can scarcely believe that it's over already.


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Seth Warren

May 2017

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