...and from vital to less vital in 14 years, 16 EPs, and two double-disc sets of opulent art-music.
Although only the material on Volume One of Lullabies to Violaine was originally issued on the label, Cocteau Twins will forever be associated with 4AD. Their opulent webs of treated guitar, opaque record sleeves, and impressionistic song titles were all part of a construct that fit the ascetic of Ivo Watts-Russell's label perfectly. And then there was vocalist Liz Fraser, the little choirgirl dancing alone in her bedroom, grinning innocently and singing operatically in a language only she understood. Sound absurd? Well, if you didn't get it, you needed to take more art classes.
Like 'em or not, Cocteau Twins' influence on indie music has extended from shimmering pop/rock bands like Kitchens of Distinction, through the entire '90s "shoegazer" movement, to current artlang practitioners like Sigur Rós. And despite this, no one has ever sounded quite like them, a point well made by Lullabies.
Consisting of two separate double-disc sets (issued together in a very limited box set), and compiled and remastered by guitarist Robin Guthrie, Lullabies collects all 16 EPs in the Cocteau Twins canon. In doing so, it features some A-sides that also appeared on the band's albums, and a lot of non-album tracks as well. Splitting the collection in two was a wise move: While Volume One functions as a comprehensive-yet-manageable introduction for newcomers or memory jog for those who lost track, Volume Two is a For Hardcore Fans Only deal.
Volume One (which replicates 1991's now-deleted CD Singles Box Set in its entirety save the "rare tracks" disc and the substitution of two superior alternate takes) is fascinating as much for the revelations as the good songs. On 1982's debut Lullabies EP and its follow-up, Peppermint Pig, Cocteau Twins do something they'd rarely do again: rock. The spindly rhythms and Guthrie's sneering guitar aren't at all out of line with what, say, the Cure were doing at the time, and Fraser's singing is clearly indebted to Siouxsie Sioux.
1983's Sunburst and Snowblind provides a true thrill -- the exact moment when a band's singular, trademark sound is born. It's all there on "Sugar Hiccup": the lush midtempo arrangement, shimmering guitars, moody synth, and Fraser's exuberant delivery that is the essence of purity yet somehow sexy. Maybe the departure of original bassist Will Hegge had something to do with it, but the band grew up in a matter of months. The three b-sides are almost as good, making this one of Cocteau Twins' all-time bests.
The quick ascent had a downisde, though. When you reach your apotheosis a year into your career, where do you go from there?
As the rest of Volume One reveals, for the rest of the decade Cocteau Twins came up with some good answers. The balance of the songs finds the band honing the sound without ever quite repeating it, although they come lusciously close on "Pearly- Dewdrops' Drops". Gradually, the arrangements become more obscure and less melodic while Fraser's singing becomes more operatic, expressive, and sometimes hysterical.
Unfortunately, the great "Carolyn's Fingers" from 1989 was never released as part of an EP, but the following year's Iceblink Luck finds the band at another career peak. The title track is newly-energized, finding just the right balance between mood and structure; hell, it even has a major-key middle-eight. Cocteau Twins rode into the '90s on a wave of neon bliss inspired by the unlikeliest of sources -- Manchester's indie-dance craze.
Three years later, Evangeline, which kicks off Volume Two, was the first CT material to emerge from the band's new major-label deal. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but the sound is noticeably lighter, toned-down, and more melodic. The attendant Four Calendar Café album was derided by some as a sellout, but as the wonderful, country-tinged "Bluebeard" proves, the shift in direction wasn't at all a bad one. Significantly, Fraser slips more discernable English phrases into her lyrics -- a dubious proposition given New Age platitudes like "You can't heal / What you can't feel" from the weak "Ice-Pulse".
From there, Volume Two is a stretch. Snow is a welcome curiosity and arguably the entire collection's rarest find. It's strangely suiting to hear Fraser and co. going through "Frosty the Snowman" as if it were any of their own creations. Ironically, the band's not as successful re-interpreting its own work on the piano-heavy Twinlights. Otherness turns four CT standards over to Seefeel's Mark Clifford for near-ambient treatment. The results, although mixed, suggest some intriguing possibilities for the future. Instead, Tishbite takes the classic Cocteau Twins sound even closer to pure pop territory. "Primitive Heart" ranks among the best of the band's latter-day songs despite Fraser sounding like she's checking off her grocery list in the verses, and "Circling Girl" even reaches back to the grandiose chords of "Sugar Hiccup". Still, too much here drifts along in search of a good reason to exist other than its own prettiness.
Cocteau Twins will always be a band of its time; the thuddy drum programming pretty much ensures that, and Volume Two, despite its strong moments, nearly proves it. However, Volume One especially is a great distillation of why they remain important beyond the 4AD realm.