Thursday, 30 May 2013

Cocteau Twins - Garlands (1982)

Behold This Thine Confusion, one of the lesser known episodes of Star Trek - and it shouldn't need stating that I'm referring here to the proper version with William Shatner - featured a fairly unusual story line in which members of Joy Division and Siouxsie & the Banshees were accidentally combined in a transporter accident, so becoming fused into a composite group called Siouxsie & the Division, and enjoying brief Romulan chart success with their Terrifying Marble Statue album, much to Scotty's bemusement. The even lesser known follow up episode saw the Enterprise flown backwards around the sun, thus achieving time-travel and stranding the unfortunate Siouxsie & the Division upon a remote pacific island in the late twentieth century whereupon they found themselves obliged to play their gloomy repertoire of spooky songs with titles like Cobweb Statement and It is a Ghost to the bewildered natives of that island, much to Spock's bemusement. Many years later, long after Siouxsie Curtis and the other hybrids had escaped on a raft constructed by inflating spent condoms that had been washed up on the shore over the years, the islanders continued to perform something which sort of sounded a bit like the music of those strangely unhappy sky Gods who had once walked amongst them, and that's how the Cocteau Twins came to be, or rather just Cocteau Twins without the definite article, because the would seem more prosaic and might imply that they were just a band rather than a mysterious force.

Four million years ago, back in the 1980s, I had records by both Joy Division and Siouxsie & the Banshees, but somehow the Cocteau Twins never quite found their way into my collection. They sounded interesting, moody and reasonably mysterious, but I just couldn't  close that gap and would always end up buying Devo albums instead. At one point I was in a band with my friend Carl. We were called The Dovers and amongst the thousands of songs we turded out on a daily basis was one entitled Flippy Floppy Flaps which I suspect came about when we both realised just why neither of us owned any Cocteau Twins albums. As a musical cake factory, their sparkly shanties sounded nice enough, but there was something about the complete lack of content that got on my tits. It all struck me as somewhat po-faced.

I picked up Garlands having realised I never could quite get the bassline of Wax and Wane out of my head, and because it was six dollars, and through sheer curiosity; and it's strange listening to this thing in the year 2013, this album I almost certainly recall as being one of the reputedly most something-or-other things ever recorded, a real milestone that you must own, and the disc that taught a thousand boys and girls to express their innermost selves by wearing black clothes and back-combing their hair. It's always a pleasure to hear the mighty Roland TR-606 drum machine doing its thing but Jesus - how they ever managed to get a whole album out of this: a ton of digital reverb, a carrier bag full of those effects pedals that every fucker and his milkman used in the eighties, and a woman making squeaking noises for half an hour: I'm not saying it's terrible or even lacking in some sort of vision - albeit not a terribly adventurous vision - but Lordy it sounds so thin it makes you nostalgic for Def Leppard.

By rights, they really should have named the band Roland Effects Pedal Demonstration Team but I suppose that doesn't sound quite so waify or romantic.

No wonder Spock thought they were rubbish.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Vostok Lake - Small Group Psychosis (2009)

It's probably fair to say that most artists strive for some degree of originality, some unique form of expression which defines them as doing something other than simply recycling what somebody else did ten years earlier with more conviction. This is fine if you've got sufficient budget to ensure your being heard, but it's more of a problem if you haven't, and what audience you can muster tends to regard you as cute but a bit weird. By unique form of expression I'm not talking bands who sample their own intestinal rumblings whilst quoting Yukio Mishima - there's plenty of outlets for that sort of thing. Vostok Lake are neither particularly shocking nor bizarre, but neither do they have quite enough mainstream credentials to grease the pistons of that charabanc to commercial success, or at least to getting on one of the larger stages without attracting the unwarranted attention of security hominids.

Vostok Lake is the vehicle of Daphne Lawless - possibly New Zealand's best kept secret, or one of them, although admittedly I'm not exactly an authority on that corner of the globe; and Small Group Psychosis is her fourth full length album. Her previous efforts have not been wanting for memorable tracks, but somehow I was always left with the impression that the recordings never quite matched Daphne's aspirations. The keyboards and percussion might suggest the Human League, but the layered strata of melody and the mathematically acrobatic compositions betray a Jethro Tull influence, all adding up to something that's maybe a bit Dresden Dolls, a bit Sisters of Mercy, a bit from column C except it doesn't exactly sound like any of those; and it's probably easier to list who Vostok Lake don't sound like - which is roughly speaking everyone else.

Previous albums have been so nearly there, but the combination of Soft Cell as progressive rock and Daphne's strong, almost operatic voice have never quite blended into a consistent whole; but she's been at this a while now and this is probably the one.

Actually, I've been playing nothing else since I first got mine in the mail. It's not an immediate listen, but it grows quickly, and Vostok Lake have at last delivered something which is carried by the sheer strength of the songs, and seeing as how that was never an issue, this could quite conceivably be an album of the decade regardless of how many bods actually get to hear it. The melodies tease hairs up from the back of the neck in all the right places, the synthetic bass lines remain warmly seductive, and the occasional vocal histrionics never fall flat - Yonder Lies the Sea, a dead thing and the title track are in particular world class, the sort of songs you end up playing over and over until the disc comes to resemble a circlet of Bacofoil. If you've ever lost it over Klaus Nomi, Kate Bush, or Split Enz - just to throw three further loose comparisons into the soup - you should probably get this, an album far, far greater than the sum of its parts.

Available from Random Static
Also of interest may be

This review revises one originally posted on the Ce Acatl blog back in May, 2010.