UNEARTHING TREASURE

If ‘The Tourist’ is your favourite song on OK Computer, then you’re more than likely to fall in love with Cocteau Twins. That elegiac, yearning quality embedded in the best Thom Yorke vocals infuses Elizabeth Fraser. Perhaps you know her voice already. The Cocteau Twins song most people know is ‘Song to the Siren’, a glorious heart-breaking anthem to vulnerability and loss that soars on Elizabeth Fraser’s peerless voice.

There are two small problems with that. Firstly, it’s a Tim Buckley song [1]. Secondly, the performance is not Cocteau Twins but by This Mortal Coil [2], a kind of 4AD [3] house band that included Cocteau Twins members and Lisa Gerard of Dead Can Dance.

Starsailor/This Mortal Coil

For simplicity and continuity, let’s just insert those footnotes here:

[1] ‘Song to the Siren’ appears on Tim Buckley’s 1970 album Starsailor. Buckley was a restless and fascinating artist well worth investigating, but this album is probably not the best place to start. It is relentlessly experimental, using Buckley’s remarkable vocal range to disquieting effect. Startlingly uneasy listening.

[3] 4AD is the label started by Ivo Watts-Russell in 1979. During the 80s something of a 4AD ‘sound’ developed, characterised by keyboard atmospheres, echoing, often treated guitars, and lots of reverb. There was a discernable design aesthetic too. Designer Vaughan Oliver’s company 23 Envelope was responsible for many of the album artworks which were full of dark, enigmatic yet romantic images (see It’ll End in Tears, above, and Treasure, below).

[2] Ivo Watts-Russell put together a studio based ensemble who recorded both original material and some of Ivo’s favourite songs under the moniker This Mortal Coil. It’ll End in Tears was the first album, released in 1984. In addition to the cover of ‘Song to the Siren’, the album included versions of two songs by Big Star’s Alex Chilton.

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Someday I’ll tell you about my first encounter with the transporting magic of This Mortal Coil’s version of ‘Song to the Siren’. It involves drugs, dungeons and dragons (now posted here). But for now we’ll return to the Twins.

The first Cocteau Twins trio consisted of Robin Guthrie, Elizabeth Fraser and Will Heggie. After the first album (Garlands, 1982) and an EP (Peppermint Pig, 1983), Heggie departed. A duo album (Head over Heels, 1983) and another EP followed before Simon Raymonde joined and a second creatively productive (if internally unstable) trio was formed. This newly configured outfit warmed-up with an EP, 1984’s The Spangle Maker.

Cocteau Twins EP Box

Now it must be noted that Cocteau Twins EPs don’t wear out their welcome. Most have three or at most four songs and clock in comfortably under fifteen minutes, which will not extend even those of short attention span. After the drum-driven wake-up punch of title track, swoon to the bird-of-paradise-salute-the-dawn gorgeousness of ‘Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops’. The disc is rounded out with ‘Pepper Tree’, which manages to sound both pensive and optimistic. With The Spangle Maker, the Cocteau’s sound coalesced into something beguiling and mysterious. The EP ends and you want more.

And more duly arrived with the album Treasure, released in 1984.

Cocteau T - Treasure

Treasure - back cover 

Treasure delivers what it says on the box, a five-star album of ten flawless songs full of drama, wordless entreaty and atmospheric guitar. Despite there being no words as such, there is richness and variety in all areas: melody, texture, rhythm.

As a slight diversion, it is interesting the titles artists choose for songs sans words. Some, like Tangerine Dream, conjure a mood or atmosphere. ‘The Big Sleep in Search of Hades’ from the Dream’s Stratosfear is unlikely to make anyone’s disco night playlist (unless it’s zombie night, of course). In contrast, electronic colleague Jean-Michel Jarre was quite happy to leave it to the listener… Oxygène Parts I to IV leaves plenty of breathing space for your imagination.

For the Cocteau Twins, the absence of language provoked a flowering of imaginative titles that are as richly scented as a garden in Spring. You probably noticed this on The Spanglemaker EP but here are some more tasty examples:

IT’S ALL BUT AN ARK LARK (1982)

PEPPERMINT PIG (1983)

SUGAR HICCUP (1983)

WHEN MAMA WAS MOTH (1983)

Yet when it came to Treasure (1984), they opted for a series of ten uncommon names. These children of mystery and imagination each have their own character so instead of describing the music, here is a brief image of the personality of each child.

Treasure Side A

 

Side one

IVO ~~ beautiful but stern; delicate and confident

LORELEI ~~ wide-eyed and curious

BEATRIX ~~ whispy, wuthering, waltzing

PERSEPHONE  ~~ a thrumming anxious edginess

PANDORA ~~ twin-voiced, wandering, searching

Treasure Side B

 

Side two

AMELIA ~~ cloudy filigree, distant storms

ALOYSIUS ~~ daydreaming sunshine song-singer

CICELY ~~ questioning, slightly out-of-sorts

OTTERLEY ~~ brooding introspective sea-child

DONIMO ~~ epic traveller in unknown lands

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The album cover is simple, even enigmatic; the design both sumptuous and evasive. One of the defining features of 4AD releases is their strikingly different ‘look’. In the Cocteau Twins catalogue there is an antique chic that pervades the art and, surprisingly, compliments the penetratingly atmospheric music.

There isn’t much more I want to say about Treasure. If you know the album or other Cocteau Twins music, do share your passion. If not, consider exploring beyond the fields you know. You may well be transported.

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SOURCES

This Mortal Coil – It’ll end in tears (4AD, 1984)

Cocteau Twins – The Spangle Maker (4AD, 1984)

Cocteau Twins – Treasure (4AD, 1984)

De Ville, Nick & Beazley, Mitchell (2003) Album: Style and image in sleeve design. Octopus, London, UK.

 

9 comments

  1. I love TMC but never explored CT so much, so thanks for this one. I know Liz F predominantly for her brilliant vocal on Massive Attack’s Teardrop, although I do have CT last album somewhere in a box of CDs – Violaine?

    I always loved the 4ad aesthetic though and once went to a really good gallery show of the covers in Manchester.

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    1. TMC has diversity and CTs consistency; a trade-off I guess.

      ‘Lullabies to Violaine’ was a set of CDs compiling the singles and Eps (an earlier version of which is pictured above).

      A gallery show of 4AD material sounds brilliant! When was this?

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      1. Milk & Kisses is the album, Violaine is the first track.

        It must have been about 15 years ago in Manchester Cornerhouse, it was damn good.

        Some of the 4AD stuff doesn’t tickle my (barely) reformed-metalhead tastebuds enough, gotta love DAF and Pixies though. I also really liked a band called Ultra Vivid Scene – ever come across them? lots of barely restrained songs about S&M and being in love, great stuff.

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        1. Good on you Bruce for swerving into leftfield with this post. And good on you 1537 for engaging.

          My favourite 4AD band was Pale Saints. Not many metallic traces there admittedly.

          Strangely, The Mountain Goats ended up on the label in the ‘noughties. The sumptuous artwork/packaging for Tallahassie just highlights the square-peg-in-round-holeness of it.

          Can’t love Pixies unreservedly (let alone DAF), but “Down to the Well” does it for me every time.

          Cocteau Twins’ place would be assured even if they’d done nothing more than “Pearly Dew-drops’ Drops”. I’m still a CT dilettante really, but listening to them I often find myself thinking Siouxsie & The Banshees had covered some of the important ground before them, circa Kaleidoscope. (I commend “Desert Kisses” to the attention of anyone reading this, whether or not the CT link is a figment of my imagination.)

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  2. The comments of bb and 1537 remind us that within a label, despite any design cohesion, the music can be startlingly diverse. Having acquisitions guided by the 4AD logo would, it seems, produce a wide range of musics.

    Ignorant cove that I am, I know next-to-nothing of the bands mentioned by our two friends, but that doesn’t prevent my welcoming a continuing dialogue…

    For my part, Siouxsie and co would be of interest to these ears, given bb’s connection above.

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  3. satinsue · · Reply

    Hi, I have just found your wonderful blog. I am originally from Scotland and saw Cocteau Twins live in Barrowlands many years ago. My lasting memory is of Elizabeth Frazer literally punching her chest throughout the concert. What a mad woman! But their music is from somewhere else. How a pair of tikes from the industrial wasteland that is Graingemouth produced music as beautiful and mysterious as they did is beyond reason.

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    1. Yes, I’d read that Ms Fraser battled demons; somehow that transmuted into a voice of staggering etherial beauty. I hope she has found a measure of peace.

      Thanks for sharing this great story.

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  4. […] When I tracked down the CD a couple of years after the album’s release, I was slightly disappointed at first. It wasn’t all sung by that ethereal siren who the cover notes told me was Elizabeth Fraser from a band named Cocteau Twins. Still, there was much to like on the CD, ensuring it remained esteemed for more than simply alerting me to Cocteau Twins (whose fine album Treasure, released the same year as It’ll end in tears, is featured here). […]

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  5. […] title track of Pan opens side two and has a shimmering Cocteau Twins ambience of exquisite beauty: pearly-dewdrops’ drop, iceblink luck, eggs and their […]

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