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Heaven or Las Vegas by Cocteau Twins (1990)

When I first heard the Cocteau Twins back in the late 1980s, I remember that the first thing I asked myself was, "Who exactly is this music for?"

I mean, it seemed sort of like dreamy pop, but then it also felt a bit like ambient New Age music, and on some other level it also called to mind melodies sung for the pleasure of the almighty gods by sirens bathed in golden light on the summit of Mount Olympus.

For several years, I guessed that the vocals to several of their songs were entirely in some kind of ancient, largely unused European tongue, like Latin, Welsh or Celtic. I couldn't make out the lyrics at all.

Later on, I went on the Internet and was able to look them up, and was very surprised to discover that the words to all Cocteau Twins songs are indeed in modern English. Not only that, but they amount to some pretty interesting, evocative and compelling poetry.

All well and good, but truth be told, I've never really needed to know what the linguistic messages of the Cocteau Twins songs are anyway, no more than people from China without any knowledge of English have a need to understand the lyrics to Beatles' songs in order to thoroughly enjoy them.

I never have figured out who the Cocteau Twins were directing their music at. My best guess is that they were trying to reach everyone and nobody at the same time. The female vocals might cause you to think that it is a band for female listeners, but something about that assessment just seems too limited, unless you hold to the rather phobic idea that men should only listen to other men sing, and women should only listen to women singers.

And in any case, the Cocteau Twins don't really seem to be asking their listeners to identify with them. They aren't trying to making a personal connection with you in an obvious, outward way. Also, they don't appear to be making any big statements about anything in particular. Their music is just an entity in itself, to be admired and appreciated as an object.

Their generally short compositions, when taken together, are kind of like a series of melodic paintings. You listen to their music the same way you might admire works of striking abstract art in a museum. For that reason, I might cautiously classify the Cocteau Twins as art-pop, if such a category actually exists. As such, it is introspective music, good for putting on when you are by yourself and in the mood to submerge beneath the ocean of the group's sonic waves.

It is quite amazing that a group of only three core musicians has been able to create such a complex sound.

The voice of the band, Elizabeth Fraser, sings in an emotional style that is at the same time oddly impersonal and detached. The lyrics to her songs also suggest strong feelings, but are so cryptic as to reveal little or nothing about the lyricist herself. On earlier Cocteau Twins albums, the double-tracking of Fraser's voice -- which at that time often involved two totally separate vocal melodies, each sung with distinct intonation -- is so prevalent that for years I was convinced that there were actually two female vocalists in the group, and even supposed that the band's name alluded to the two singers. Maybe there is a kind of duality to Fraser's personality -- perhaps her private reality and her stage personae -- that has found expression on those double-tracked voices.

Robin Guthrie's heavily processed yet somehow organic guitar, whose diverse sound ranges from liquid to stratospheric, comes in an almost infinite variety of tonal colors and intensities. At times vicious and brutal, at others heavenly and tender, for each song he manifests a distinct sonic image. Technically speaking, his playing style is not all that complicated or difficult, and the songs tend to have a relatively simple melodic structure, but his feel for his instrument is rock-solid, and each note and chord change -- the winds upon which the bird of Fraser's voice soars -- is meticulously structured and every transition seamless.

Eschewing a live human drummer in the studio, Guthrie programmed a drum machine for all of the band's albums, although they made use of a real drummer for live performances. I only found out recently that studio recordings of the band exclusively used a drum machine -- I had no idea.

Bassist Simon Raymonde's playing closely corresponds to Guthrie's guitar work, which is to say that it tends to be smooth, minimal and highly precise. At times, the bass is so heavily processed that it is hard to tell that it is actually a bass. But that fits in well with the group's non-conventional sound anyway.

I own most of the Cocteau Twins albums and enjoy them all, but if pressed to name my favorite one, I would probably pick Heaven or Las Vegas, released in 1990. The entire album is so strong, it is hard to narrow down my favorite pieces from it, but I'll give it a try in any case.

Here are my favorite tunes off that album:

"Cherry-Coloured Funk"
The opening track to the album features a flowing wall of strummed chords. Somehow, Guthrie makes his guitar sound like it is moving vertically. I can't explain it any better than that -- you just have to listen to appreciate what I'm saying. Fraser's vocal melody here, double-tracked to excellent effect, is pure artistry. The song comes across as a dreamy, nostalgic lament.

"Pitch the Baby"
The bass line to this song is just too chic, especially with the flange-drenched guitar floating on top of it. Then Fraser icily blends into the mix with an unusual, almost monotonic vocal that is more rhythmic than melodic. They've probably played this one for professional clothing models on the catwalk at big fashion shows in Paris. I don't care, I still like it anyway.

"Fifty-Fifty Clown"
This is a haunting piece. The mood seems to be one of weariness and sadness with a melodic and lyrical change of mood towards the positive in the coda sequence. One webpage I found gave this version of the lyrics at the end:

And this is safe, flowing, love, soul and light
Motions aren't in the shape that emotions are

"I Wear Your Ring"
This song has an intensely European feel to it, if there is such a thing. Fraser's placement of the word "perfection" is just that, pure perfection. The intricate triple-tracked coda vocals will put goose-bumps on your arms. Fraser reaches Beach Boy levels of choral complexity on that one.

"Road, River and Rail"
This tune makes me think of Eastern Europe coming to the close of the Soviet era, which was basically what was happening at the time the album was recorded, in 1990. The song opens with a stark, serious and reverb-heavy guitar riff that lightens somewhat for the chorus, then, returns to the kind of grey sadness you might associate with a crumbling society and dying ideals from the past. The title of the song, repeated throughout, brings to my mind solitary travel in buses, boats and trains through a snowy Yugoslavian landscape.

"Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires"
This was truly made to close the album. Beginning mysteriously, sounding almost like a monastic chant with a bit of light piano and drums behind it, Fraser then employs her own unique variation of John Lennon's "turn you on" technique from "A Day in the Life." Following that, the song seems to ignite, just as the title implies, as Fraser recites a steady rhythmic stream of vocal notes -- almost like a poetic pop sermon -- followed by a stirring choral chant. Then they do it all over again, building in intensity towards the mystical final fadeout.

Heaven or Las Vegas is certainly an amazing album. I listened to it over and over practically every day for several years back in the 1990s. Paying no attention to the mostly incomprehensible lyrics, I found that I could associate its songs with just about everything that was going on in my life at the time and with what I was feeling. I can't exactly remember what those associations were anymore, but it doesn't matter. This is an album that transcends whatever personal memories we might connect with its tunes. It is quite simply an ambient pop music masterpiece.

Reviewed by Somebody Else 4/1/11

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