Friday, September 4, 2015

Cocteau Twins: Heaven or Las Vegas

This blogger can remember very clearly the surprise--no, shock--at hearing a song from Cocteau Twins on a pop radio station while in a Target store back in 1988.  Having been a fan of the group for a few years by then, it was surreal to find this "cult" group being played along with whatever ruled the airwaves twenty-seven years ago.

The reason was that the band had signed an American record deal with Capitol, while maintaining their English tie with 4AD, and the song heard on the radio, "Carolyn's Fingers," was from the first release under the new deal, Blue Bell Knoll, a fine record.  Not long after, the band toured the U.S. and seeing them live in Hollywood in 1990 was quite an experience.

The next album, Heaven or Las Vegas, is about a flawless a recording as this great band could have made.  The production values were, certainly, better; Elizabeth Fraser's voice was in top form; he lyrics were actually becoming discernible from time-to-time; and the band's approach to writing 3-4 minute (excepting two longer pieces of 5 minutes or so) gems of atmospheric, lush and compelling songs was at its apex.

It's hard to pick highlights on an album so filled with excellent songs.  The opener, "Cherry Coloured Funk" starts with Fraser singing lines in a lower tone before her double-tracked chorus moves to a gorgeous higher register chorus.  "Pitch the Baby" is a shift in sound--simpler, more direct, and less of the ethereal sound that had been the band's trademark with a funkier bass line by Simon Raymonde than had been offered previously.

"Iceblink Luck" is one of the band's better-known pieces, with a sinewy and fluid bass and Robin Guthrie's understated rhythm guitar undergirding Fraser's crystalline vocal and another double-tracked chorus, which actually offers some clearly-heard vocals ("you're really both sad turns" and "that will burn this whole madhouse down", for example.)

As the band began moving more toward sounds that reflected the electronica that was dominating much of the music scene at the time, "Fifty-Fifty Clown," was an example of the growing interest, but with Fraser's voice (again, more double-tracking here to allow high and low register complemented voicings) adding a human warmth that really harmonizes well with the instrumental.

"Heaven or Las Vegas" is a gorgeous song.  It starts off simply and then builds as Fraser's voice soars in the chorus and Guthrie and Raymonde provide that reliable backing to support and rise up with her.  At just under five minutes, the tune is really a masterpiece of putting all the right pieces together, including a very nice bridge and a rare Guthrie solo that fits perfectly with the movement of the piece.

"I Wear Your Ring" is another primarily electronic piece, but here Raymonde's bass stands out with its fluid, flowing line as the dominant instrumental element.  Fraser sings beautifully here, as she moves into that higher-register chorus (yes, double-tracked!) and then a highly-memorable bridge, which is repeated to close out this excellent song.

To this listener this is where the album starts to hit its heights.  "Fotzepolitic" really soars with Raymonde's bass underpinning one of Fraser's prettiest melodies.  Here, the band perfects the basic instrumental underpinnings allowing for Fraser's singing to take center stage, as it needed to do.

"Wolf in the Breast" is a beautiful ballad, with Guthrie's guitar setting the stage for another memorable vocal performance.  A haunting guitar done drifts over the piece to add a little touch of atmosphere and then there the bridge has a rumbling drum machine and a delicate guitar line to add variety to a standout track.

Raymonde's memorable bass line in "Road, River and Rail" really holds the piece together as Fraser sings with great simplicity and mounfulness.  Notably, there are no dominant multi-tracked vocals (a bit of overlapping, though) here at all and this serves the tune well.  Guthrie provides more drone over his trebly rhythm work and it is executed very nicely.

"Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires" starts off in a very subdued fashion with a piano line supporting Fraser's higher-register singing and then builds, with stronger drum patterns and more pronounced, if light, rhythm guitar from Guthrie to push the song forward to a little heavier territory, with a softer bridge for a change of pace.

After Treasure, this may be Cocteau Twins' finest record, though some who prefer the pre-1987 phase of the band will offer Head over Heels as a better album.  All said, Heaven or Las Vegas is a real gem from a group that was in its own sonic world for a fifteen-year career of memorable music.

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