What a difference between the industrial sounds of the Cabs and the ethereal, shimmering textures of Cocteau Twins, focusing on the otherwordly vocalizing by Elizabeth Fraser! Although in one important sense, there may be a major common thread--both created bodies of work that resonated with fans because it was far less about technical mastery of instruments than in setting a mood or an atmosphere that was, in its own way, a form of virtuosity.
Cocteau Twins fans tend to be pretty intense about the band's music and, probably, detractors are equally so about their dislike of it. Fraser's trilling, swooping chirps, vibrato, and other mannerisms, coupled with evidently nonsensical lyrics, at least until later albums, probably rub many people the wrong way as pretentious and self-conscious. Robin Guthrie's arrangements could be dismissed as simplistic and overtly romantic.
Yet, admirers could argue that Fraser's vocals are a thrilling combination of otherworldly intonations and soaring beauty, while Guthrie orchestrated a backing sound that perfectly matched her singing, provided you were willing to be drawn in to a sound that really was unusual and unique.
Perhaps none of their records captures the blend of exquisitely mannered vocalizing and an empathetic and complementary instrumental backing as the 1984 album Treasure (though others might argue, persuasively, that 1991's Heaven or Las Vegas is just as skillfully executed.) After a Gothic debut album, Garlands (1982) that hinted at what was to come and a sophomore effort, Head Over Heels (1983) that was a significant improvement, Treasure was a huge leap forward in the band's development. The album was recorded in August and September and released very quickly on 1 November 1984.
From the first track, "Ivo", named for the owner of the band's groundbreaking label, 4AD, the lushness of Guthrie's arrangement and the sweeping vocals of Fraser are totally in sync. What distinguishes the instrumentation from the earlier records was its greater diversity. While critics and even Guthrie himself often downplayed his guitar skills, "Ivo" reveals him to be quite capable of executing a solid solo. Excellent as this song is, the followup, "Lorelei", provides a grand scale of power through both Guthrie's playing and Fraser's singing that is a highlight of the record. There are jazz-like, choral, medieval (something reminiscent of Dead Can Dance--perhaps), ambient and other sounds that make each track stand out from the others and breathe more life into the pieces. The closer, "Donimo," does what a final track should--it leaves a memorable impression ending on powerful instrumental flourishes while Fraser's vocals soar to the heights after being understated for much of the song.
But, the biggest difference between Treasure and its predecessors is the presence of bassist Simon Raymonde. He keeps the unearthly flights of fancy grounded and establishes rhythm without showiness, playing just the notes that are needed. In any band, the guitarist and vocalist get the lion's share of the attention and, while the band was aided here by drum machines, drummers are often right behind. The odd man or woman out, inevitably, is the bassist, but an excellent one is a steady anchor and Raymonde fits the bill perfectly.
Treasure is generally acclaimed as the Cocteau Twins' best record and it is hard to argue against that sentiment. The band did go on to make many fine records up until their disbanding in the late 1990s. Though there was a reunion planned for the Coachella music festival a few years back, Fraser opted out not long after the announcement is made and there is no reason to assume a reunion is possible. More recordings by this amazing band will be featured here in the future.
Cocteau Twins: Treasure (4AD, 1984)
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