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CD Review: Cocteau Twins – Lullabies to Violaine

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The Cocteau Twins were one of those mysterious bands that the really cool kids in High School were into. You know, the ones with lots of black clothing, complicated footwear, hip hairdos, and surprisingly easy access to mind-altering substances. In other words, not me.

In spite of this, I once unwittingly ended up with a Cocteau Twins album of sorts called The Moon and the Melodies, via my obsession with the rather uncool music of Harold Budd. I didn’t realize it at the time, though, since that record was credited to Mr. Budd with “Simon Raymonde/Robin Guthrie/Elizabeth Fraser” and I was way too uncool to realize that those three people were actually the Cocteau Twins.

I continue to grow older and more uncool each day, but I nevertheless decided to pick up Lullabies to Violaine – a four-CD retrospective of singles and other “non-album” tracks by this band from 1982’s Lullabies to, well, Violaine in 1996. (It’s available as either two double-CD sets or as a “limited edition” four-CD set with the same track listing and strange shiny rubbery packaging they call “Curious Soft Touch Milk” for some reason…)

Knowing that the Cocteau twins are considered one of the original and definitive “dream/ambient pop” bands, I was more than a little surprised (and somewhat annoyed) by the first six tracks on disc one – “Lullabies” is not a title I would have chosen for these dissonant, distorted, agitated electro-punk tunes.

When “Sugar Hiccup” (there’s a great title!) arrives, however, the clouds part and the Cocteau Twins hit on what would be their signature sound going forward. You soon find out why the adjectives “ethereal,” “blissful,” “dreamy,” and “atmospheric” are always used to describe their music: massively echoed, reverbed, and chorused layers of pulsing guitars and synthesizers… unintelligible sweeping soprano vocals… piles of major 7th chords… and, so the kids can dance to it all, a steady drum machine beat.

Over time, the Cocteau Twins tinker with this appealing formula without straying too far from it. But sometimes this stuff is too saccharine and radiant for its own good, sounding a little too much like the ideal soundtrack to a Volkswagen commercial or something. Also, while it’s nice to understand the words Elizabeth Fraser is singing for a change, these versions of “Winter Wonderland” and “Frosty the Snowman” just sound really silly.

Otherwise, there is plenty of genuinely sublime music to be heard throughout this collection, including several great tracks from the band’s often dismissed and maligned later years. I especially enjoy it when they turn the drum machine down (or off) and let the music and vocals expand and breathe a little more. The alternate “acoustic versions” of some songs are also a welcome inclusion, allowing you to better appreciate the unique sound of this band without all the layers of production and processing.

So whether you’re a die-hard fan needing to round out your collection or a newcomer looking to take the plunge into the Cocteau Twins ocean, Lullabies to Violaine is an ideal (and affordable) way to do it.

In a word, it’s… cool.

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