This Ain't Your Mother's Cocteau Twins
This might not be the most fair way to begin a review, but I’m not the only one that felt that there were times when it seemed that the Cocteau Twins had a hotline to God. Or at least some peacefeul but horrible prenatal paradise, before birth literalized the terror of that Awakening we were all in for.
And it was exceedingly difficult to tell exactly where that feeling came from. Was it Eilzabeth Fraser’s alternately haunting and soothing vocal babble (to this day, I still cannot claim familiarity with either her lyrics or her songs’ subject matter)? Or Robin Guthrie’s drenched, atmospheric, and sustained guitar and feedback? Or perhaps Simon Raymonde’s rumbling, melodic bass structures? Whatever it was, it is clear that, like the human body itself, the Twins were better off regarded as an exquisitely constructed sum of their very impressive parts.
But like all paradises that are inevitably lost, the Cocteau Twins went gently into that good night. On Mezzanine, Fraser finally gave UK triphop legends Massive Attack the ethereal songbird they had always been looking for. Meanwhile, Raymonde went on to a solo and producing binge, fostering the careers of newcomers on Bella Union, a label he shares with Guthrie, who took a similar production path, helming projects for Bunnyman Ian McCullough, Wolfgang Press, and many others, before finally launching Violet Indiana with ex-Mono chanteuse, Siobhan de Mare.
Which brings us to Violent Indiana’s second release, Casino, which (pardon the pun) can be a gamble depending on what kind of expectations you’re bringing to the table. If you’re ready and waiting for Cocteau Twins II, this is not the disc for you, and not because de Mare can’t weave her own captivating spells over Guthrie’s continually hypnotic arrangements. More similar to Portishead’s Beth Gibbons seductive moaning than Fraser’s cathartic lightness, de Mare’s smoky attitude seems like it comes right out of some David Lynch fever dream. You can almost see her hips swaying on every song.
Especially on the aptly named “Purr La Perla”, one of Casino’s finer tracks, where de Mare croons, “I wish I could love you / Instead of saying I do”, a clever twist of phrase echoing Portishead’s popular chorus from “Sour Times” (“Nobody loves me, it’s true / Not like you do”). The song clocks in under three minutes, making it a short and sweet accompaniment to the following “Silent”, which functions as its more electrified bookend, lamenting “The falseness I despise in you / You crept in me, deceiving me / It’s coming to haunt you”. Blue Velvet, anyone?
De Mare’s visceral musings on love lost or love diseased puncture the dreamy atmosphere of Casino at every lightly strummed turn, making it the perfect record for those lonely moments before sleep that any jilted lover endures while watching the candlelight dance on the framed picture of his/her ex. Those are the times when de Mare’s bittersweet ironies will work best for the listener. What else would you expect from a singer whose optimistic chorus, “Having the best day of my life”, is imprisoned within a song entitled, “Jailbird”? And when de Mare steps outside of this clever phrasing, she’s more or less as scary and convincing. So if you’ve been cavorting with her lover, you’d better watch your ass, because she’s got you in her sights like the woman in “Bang Bang”, who was caught in de Mare’s bed and ended up with a bullet “in the back of her head”.
Like I said, this isn’t Cocteau Twins II.
Although Violet Indiana may sound like them sometimes because, as always, Robin Guthrie seems to have a knack for creating depthless worlds out of a bank of effects and deceptively spare arrangements. Which is funny because if you’ve ever seen the Cocteau Twins live, you’ll see how many on-stage musicians it takes to replicate their sound for an audience. Indeed, Casino contains some of Guthrie’s coolest musings. As usual, his guitar work is top-notch hypnosis; you’ll swear you are either underwater, floating through the clouds, or coming out a strange dream as you’re listening to it. But whereas the seriously underrated Guthrie previously upped the volume on the music (especially on the Cocteau Twins’ equally underrated Milk and Kisses) to buttress Fraser’s formidable vocal talents, here he seems content with creating a mellower melancholia more suited to de Mare’s tales of fractured relationships and hearts. So go ahead and carve another notch in his guitar and (I’m sure) impressive deck array, because his skills have never been better.
But sometimes, as the similarly smoky yet sweet Sade sang, “It’s never as good as the first time”. Which means that Guthrie’s compositions, like the ironies of love that seem to dominate de Mare’s lyrics, are good examples of poet William Blake’s attraction/repulsion thesis: that is, they provide sustenance and whet the desire, but they still carry the pain of losing the Cocteau Twins to alternative music’s annals in almost each stroke. Just like ex-Pixies frontman, Frank Black, Guthrie, Fraser, and Raymonde are doomed to carry the weight of their former works into everything they create in the future. That’s just part of the plan, and there’s not much that anyone, even they, can do about it.
But perhaps that’s the whole point? After all, you may think you have a hotline to God, but it usually ends up being one of your own making. In other words, there are no gods but texts, and the differences between them—between Violet Indiana and the Cocteau Twins—are just as important as the similarities. And even Blake thought they should be applauded: “Without contraries, [there] is no progression”, he once wrote.
So it may not be Cocteau Twins II, but it nevertheless is still another top-notch entry in the sound that they created almost two decades ago. And that should be enough for all the heartbroken innocents and vengeful lovers looking for something to replace that which they had lost, whatever it may be.
// Notes from the Road
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