Thursday, August 4, 2022

Cocteau Twins

Harold Budd Elizabeth Fraser Robin Guthrie Simon Raymonde 
The Moon and the Melodies 
Melody Maker, November 1 1986

Cocteau Twins + Mazzy Star - live in NYC - December 1 1990 - Melody Maker

typo alert - "foyer" should be "cover" (mistaken by Vaughan as a diss, nothing could have been further!)

entries from a listener's guide to 4AD, eMusic, 2006


The Moon and the Melodies


No one would claim this is Harold Budd’s finest half-hour (that would be his Brian Eno Ambient Series collaboration The Plateaux of Mirror), nor that it’s the Cocteau Twins’ peak achievement (too many contenders to list). But it is a captivating cul de sac off  the beaten track of both artists’ trajectories. And an apt pairing, given their idyllicism and mutual ardour for effects-saturated texture. Cocteau soundboys Guthrie and Raymonde do a good job of standing in for Eno on “Memory Gongs”, cloaking Budd’s piano in a mist of reverb to create an effect like the autumn dawn-mist slowly rising while a watery sun peeks through yellow-hazed sky. The instrumentals are nice but inevitably the most breathtaking moments come when Liz Fraser’s voice enters the soundscape. All updrafts, currents, tides and breakers, “Ooze Out and Away, Onehow” is a mermaid torch song, while the shatteringly lovely “Eyes Are Mosaics” would be regarded as a Cocteau Twins classic if it had appeared on one of their “proper” albums.


Blue Bell Knoll


It’s so hard to pick a Cocteau Twins album as the One. Head over Heels is their early classic, and EPs like Sunburst and SnowblindThe Spangle Maker and Love’s Easy Tears are mid-period highs. Still, Blue Bell Knoll is their most flawless record, and also the one that’s the most approachable for virgin listeners while still retaining the group’s bottomless mystery. You can hear a smidgeon of Kate Bush on the title track opener, but Fraser soon sheds all ancestral traces to assert her candidacy as one of the five or six most original vocalists of the rock era. Likewise the group, having started out as a sort of soft-core Siouxsie & the Banshees, now mature into a sound without parallel or peer. Lindsay Buckingham to Liz’s Nicks, spangle-maker Robin Guthrie drapes his lover in iridescent canopies of guitarstuff. Fraser’s sculpted gush of liquidized language is almost entirely indecipherable but always sounds rich in wholly private, non-verbalisable meaning.  Sometimes these sweet nothings seem like songs for swooning lovers, sometimes they seem literally like baby-talk, making you imagine an Eskimo mother chirruping to her newborn. The Cocteaus struggled after this album:  when you’ve made songs as sublime as “Carolyn Fingers,” ‘Cico Buff” and “Ella Megablast Burls Forever”  what do you do for an encore? They made a mistaken pop-wards move, with Fraser singing first in better enunciated gibberish and then in distinctly plain English. She said so much more when you couldn’t understand a word.

Oneohtrix Point Never, Elizabeth Fraser

“Tales from the Trash Stratum”

(Pitchfork, tracks of the year 2021)

The original “Trash Stratum” on 2020’s Magic Oneohtrix Point Never entwined distortion and euphony in fairly familiar Dan Lopatin fashion. This year’s drastic reinvention lovingly collages ‘80s production motifs: pizzicato string-flutters as fragrant as Enya, blobs of reverb-smudged piano that evoke Harold Budd, high-toned pings of bass that could be The Blue Nile or Seventeen Seconds Cure. It’s like Lopatin is a bowerbird building a glittering nest to attract a mate – and succeeds in reeling in the onetime Cocteau Twin.  Fraser’s contributions -  ASMR-triggering wisps of sibilant breath, chirruping syllables from a disintegrated lullaby – are closer to a diva’s warm-up exercises than an actual aria, and sometimes you long for her to take full-throated flight into song.  But it’s lovely to hear the Goth goddess brought into the glitchy 21st Century.

                                                                                                                                Simon Reynolds 

Friday, July 29, 2022

Electronic Panorama and the Prospective 21e Siecle series

THE INNER SLEEVE: Electronic Panorama 

The Wire, March 2009 

by Simon Reynolds 

It's tempting to pick a favorite record sleeve based on what a group or genre represents to me. 

For instance, I could point to the two grubby-looking photocopied paper inserts enfolding a 7 inch that is Scritti Politti's 2nd Peel Session EP. The first sheet carries the group's standard wodge of typewritten data about recording costs (demystify the means of production, to help others do-it-themselves), while the second is pages 179-180 of an imaginary book, Scritto's Republic, containing a lucid exposition of what were then (1979) pretty fresh and pretty mindblowing (to sixteen year old me) ideas about the relationship between language, power and the construction of self.

Equally, I might brandish an early '90s rave sleeve such as DJ Trax's 1 Man I DJ or 2 Bad Mice's Waremouse/Bombscare Remixes, both Moving Shadow EPs. Here, the goofy montaged snapshots of the teenagers responsible for the tunes exude a charming amateurishness that suits the made-in-two-minutes spirit of Ardkore.

With both Scritti and Moving Shadow, the sounds are fabulous and the movements--postpunk and rave--mean the world to me; made me, in a sense. 

But these sleeves aren't really things of beauty: graphic designers would frown, while I don't exactly gaze at them in aesthetic rapture. So I feel beholden to pick something that's both lovely-looking and personally meaningful. 

Which brings me to the series of albums released in the 1960s by Philips under the imprint "Prospective 21eme Siecle," which featured musique concrete and electroacoustic luminaries such as Francois Bayle and Bernard Parmegiani. All the albums are clad in futuristic-looking metallic gloss sleeves with abstract patterns. 

I picked up my first one (Pierre Henry's Voile d'Orphee I et II, Oxford jumble sale, 1983) unaware that it belonged to a series. To me, it was an eye-catching one-off, competitively priced at just one quid. I vaguely knew who Henry was, the fact that he was important, but my attraction was literally superficial, like a magpie greedily swooping down for a glittering foil wrapper. Which is pretty much what the cover is. (No one seems to know who the series designer was). I confess that at the time I only listened to the record once or twice. The sleeve, however, adorned the walls of my various digs for years (and as a result is BluTak-blemished on its back side).

It wasn't until 2003 when record-fiend/ blogger/Wire contributor/musician (and good friend) Matthew Ingram a.k.a. Woebot wrote a post about "The Silver Records" that the penny dropped. The hunt was on. I've now got thirteen from the series (only 22 to go). But which to nominate here? The obvious choice would be the initiating LP, Voile d'Orphee. But as sleeves I prefer Henry's Variations Pour Une Porte et un Soupir and Xenakis's Persephassa. Yet in those cases the music inside the packaging doesn't appeal as much.

Perhaps the solution is to nominate one I've not got but most covet: that collector's holy grail, Electronic Panorama, a box of four platters each dedicated to music from a different city (Paris, Tokyo, Utrecht, Warsaw). This beaut turns up on Ebay and Gemm regularly, priced way out of my league. One day, maybe… 

As a smashing-looking artifact and an assemblage of astonishing sounds, Electronic Panorama stands in for the entire Prospective series. It also says something to me about the pathos of collecting, its fetishism and folly. (See, I "have" all of Panorama's sonic contents, they're not hard to find on the web---why then do I crave the music's husk, gorgeous as it is?). Panorama speaks to impulses petty and lofty, childish and superhuman. On the one hand, the seriality of collector desire, the sadsack compulsion to get the complete set (coins, cards, stamps, or in this case, a label catalogue, even though the music can never be all gold--and there's definitely some duds in the Prospective series). On the other hand, Prospective 21eme Siecle embodies with supreme stylishness the awe-inspiring ambition of that post-WW2 drive to open up a new frontier for music. In some ways, the black-and-white sobriety of the back covers--portrait shots of the suit-wearing, bespectacled composers and sleevenotes about complex methodology and grand themes--resonates with me as much as the shiny-shiny fronts.

Consider that evocative imprint name. A French friend informs me that "prospective" is a philosophical term to describe the study of possible futures. It fuses "perspective" and "prospection" (as in a prospector exploring a new territory, searching for gold, or indeed silver). Here we are now, some way into the actual 21eme siècle, and there's an "after the gold rush" feel. And I wonder, will we ever again witness anything with that same Eureka!-like spirit of discovery and quest?

You can hear Electronic Panorama in pristine glistening flac at Avant-Garde Project 13 and 14

For a text for the exhibition Futur Anterieur, I wrote about the Prospective 21e Siecle covers and how the look inspired similar covers for the French science fiction publisher Ailleurs et Demain (which translates as Elsewhere and Tomorrow)

"In 1969, the publisher Robert Laffont launched the literary equivalent of Prospective 21e Siècle: the imprint Ailleurs et Demain, dedicated to science fiction and under the direction of Gérard Klein. Over the coming years Ailleurs et Demain would publish translations of works by giants of the genre such as Philip K. Dick, John Brunner, Frank Herbert, and Arthur C. Clarke along with novels by French s.f. writers like Jacques Sternberg, Michel Jeury, and Klein himself.  Klein was an admirer of the Prospective series and decided to package A & D fiction using the same process, called Héliophore and originally developed in the 1930s by Louis Defay to transform aluminum paper for printing. 

Some of the Ailleurs Et Demain designs closely resemble specific Prospective 21e Siecle sleeves, while others are new but clearly inspired by the series. (With both the albums and the novels, nobody seems to know the identity of the designers, who were in-house and uncredited).  The design style, which eventually extended beyond silver to gold and copper book covers, was maintained for over 20 years, before being abandoned."

More about the Heliphore process at Grapheine

Mine mine finally all  mine (thanks to the generosity of a dear friend). Ailleurs et Demain paperbacks picked up in Lyon.