Cocteau Twins
Photo: Pav Modelski / 4AD

Cocteau Twins Reissue ‘Four-Calendar Café’ and ‘Milk & Kisses’

With dream pop in ascendance again, the final two Cocteau Twins albums appear on vinyl in North America for the first time, newly remastered by Robin Guthrie.

Four-Calendar Café
Cocteau Twins
12 January 2024
Milk & Kisses
Cocteau Twins
12 January 2024

Cocteau Twins‘ final two albums, 1993’s Four-Calendar Café and 1996’s Milk & Kisses, were outliers in the Scottish group’s catalogue. Both albums appeared as dream pop, the genre the group helped establish in the 1980s, but it was on a commercial downslide. As grunge, Britpop, and alternative rock became dominant in the 1990s, the Cocteau Twins’ style of ethereal popcraft – graced by Elizabeth Fraser’s distinctly feminine voice – began losing ground against lads in mod haircuts and flannel shirts.

Four-Calendar Café and Milk & Kisses showed the Cocteau Twins’ willingness to meet the alt-rockers halfway. Gone are the clattering TR-808 drum machines of early albums like Garlands (1982) and Treasure (1984). Robin Guthrie’s guitar remains washed in reverb, but Simon Raymonde’s bass is pushed forward in the mix to match naturalistic drum samples. Cocteau Twins were never “shoegazers”, but the final albums veer closer in style to the shoegaze groups they influenced – Curve, Lush, Slowdive, and the lighter side of My Bloody Valentine.

The most significant change on the final albums is how Fraser’s lyrics, infamously inscrutable in earlier years, become literal and direct in certain songs. A case in point is “Bluebeard” on Four-Calendar Café, where Fraser sings: “Are you the right man for me? Are you safe? Are you my friend? Or are you toxic for me? Will you mistreat me or betray my confidence?” Alluding to the breakup of Fraser and Guthrie after a 13-year relationship, “Bluebeard” exemplifies songs that sound personal and cathartic.

The 2024 reissues of Four-Calendar Café and Milk & Kisses come in vinyl LP and CD digipaks without any bonus tracks. Robin Guthrie remastered both sets from the original mixes to 24-bit masters. The new versions remove some dynamic-range compression from earlier remastering in 2006, which, according to audiophile analysis by Darko Audio, “rode the loudness wave of the time”. Both LPs mark the first time Four-Calendar Café and Milk & Kisses have been available on vinyl in North America and from the Cocteau Twins’ original label, 4AD.

Of the two albums, Four-Calendar Café is closest in sound to earlier classics such as Victorialand (1986) and Blue Bell Knoll (1988). Opening track “Know Who You Are at Every Age” has that dancing-through-clouds quality admirers such as the Cure‘s Robert Smith noted when, in the 2014 documentary Beautiful Noise, he called the Cocteaus “the most romantic sound I’d ever heard”.

It is romance tinged with melancholy, however, as “Evangeline” expresses “[s]orrow for letting someone else define you” and “Theft, and Wandering Around Lost” evokes its title in Guthrie’s minor guitar chords and Simon Raymonde’s prowling bassline. The latter song also affirms feminine autonomy in Fraser’s repeated assertion: “My body is my own / My body is mine alone.” Fraser’s breakup with Guthrie was difficult, but the lyrics are more about gathering one’s strengths and moving on.

The rest of Four-Calendar Café resembles clouds parting after a dreary rainstorm. “Oil of Angels” gains its celestial impression from Fraser’s layered harmonies, “Squeeze-Wax” is an upbeat song full of gossamer guitar fills, and “Essence” evokes an ocean breeze through airy synthesizers. The final track, “Pur”, reiterates the earlier theme of resilience, as Fraser sings, “I am not afraid of your anger” – another possible reference to the breakup.  

Nearly three years passed before Milk & Kisses arrived in April 1996. Time’s healing allowed Fraser and Guthrie to work closer together in the studio, resulting in a more coherent group effort. With its strutting riff, the opening track, “Violaine”, nudges the Cocteaus toward shoegaze. Improved sampling technology is a factor here, but Guthrie’s guitar and Raymonde’s bass are mixed more like on a conventional rock album. Two later songs, “Tishbite” and “Calfskin Smack”, maintain the rock affinities found on Milk & Kisses.  

The rest of Milk & Kisses is largely dream pop central. “Serpentskirt”, “Half-Gifts”, and “Eperdu” are all updated variations on the group’s classic sound. The closing track, “Seekers Who Are Lovers”, features Fraser in almost operatic mode as her multitracked voice dwells in a high soprano register. One other highlight is “Rilkean Heart”, a tribute to singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley (a year before his tragic drowning in 1997), with whom Fraser had a brief romantic relationship.

The absence of bonus tracks and extra liner notes makes Four-Calendar Café and Milk & Kisses basic as far as reissues go. However, dream pop has seen an uptick in popularity in recent years, especially among younger listeners (the hashtag #dreampop has a quarter of a billion hits on TikTok). So now is a good time to restore Four-Calendar Café and Milk & Kisses to their rightful place at the end of the Cocteau Twin’s shimmering discography. For those who appreciate the tactility of vinyl, the LP versions will be especially welcome.

RATING 8 / 10