Saturday, September 18, 2010

It's so much brighter than the sun is

Today, September 18, is (at least in the United States), the 20th anniversary of the initial release of "Heaven or Las Vegas" by ethereal dream-pop trailblazers Cocteau Twins. It's arguably one of the best and most influential records of the 1990s, across all genres, and one of my "desert island albums". If you own a copy, listen to it today. If you don't, you should buy, borrow or steal a copy immediately.

First, enjoy the videos for "Heaven or Las Vegas" and "Iceblink Luck". Then read my commentary on the album.

Heaven or Las Vegas:

Iceblink Luck:

I'd like to say that on September 18, 1990, I waited outside the record store for the doors to open that Tuesday morning. However, I don't think that would be true. On that day, I probably didn't know about the Cocteaus well enough to anticipate the new album. I'd heard "Carolyn's Fingers" (from the 1988 album "Blue Bell Knoll), but that was about it. I can't be sure when I bought my first copy of "Heaven or Las Vegas", but I know that over time I've bought at least three hard copies of the original recording. I've given at least one away and had at least one stolen. It's the kind of thing, though, that makes me happy to buy another copy if it means that someone else in the world has one of mine.

There's an important distinction here. I specifically mentioned "hard copies" of the album. Anyone can download a digital copy of original or even the 2003 re-mastered version. They can get the fancy lossless files so it's "just like the album". But it's not. In the 1990s, it was a real treat to buy an album on the 4AD label. The jacket artwork was always amazing, and worth the price of the album itself. The liner notes were usually pretty minimal, but who needs a lyric sheet, a photo of the band and a list of acknowledgements when you've got a stunning piece of jacket art? I'll admit that I have started buying digital downloads of music, but I still buy hard copies because I refuse to let go of certain things. It may be juvenile, but I get a rush out of tearing open the cd wrapper and holding the jewel box in my hand as I listen to the music for the first time. I like to admire the artwork and look for the connections between the artwork and the music within.
With digital downloads, we're seldom even aware of what the album cover looks like. And downloading the pdf version of the artwork isn't the same. It doesn't have the smell and tactile feel of real liner notes.

I could go on a tangent about how ebooks and digital downloads are horrible for our local economies, but I'll leave that for another day. I could also go on a tangent about the parallels between 4AD records and Factory Records, but I'll leave that for another day as well.

To get back on track... "Heaven or Las Vegas" was a smashing success for the Cocteaus. It reached #7 on the UK charts and #99 in the US. It was their sixth proper album and by far the "cleanest" to that point in time. The first three records were dark, muddy and dense. They were great, but they were definitely born out of goth and post-punk. The next three, starting with 1986's "Victorialand" started to get that "lighter than air" feel, the production was cleaned up and the overall vibe was getting a bit brighter. Still, there was always a deliberate use of confounding "lyrics". With rare exception, Liz Fraser's singing bordered so much on glossolalia that people wondered if there actually were lyrics. Since the liner notes were sparse and we didn't have internet for that kind of thing, we were left to assume that it was all part of the mystery of the Cocteaus.

The common (mis)conception about "HOLV" is that, for the first time, we could discern the lyrics. They still didn't make a bit of goddamned sense, but at least we could assume that it was English that she was speaking. I've listened to that album probably 2500 times in my life, and I can safely say that I can only pick up about two dozen words in the whole thing. I'll dismiss the claim that the lyrics are more clear. Even using a lyric finder cheat sheet, I still can't pick anything out. What is clear, though, is that the music was getting better. I would argue that "Blue Bell Knoll" (1988) has more lush production and cleaner sound. I would also argue that the "lyrics" are more discernible on that album than on "HOLV". There's still a noticeable shift to something bigger and better. Anyway, "HOLV" was the album that finally put a record in the top 100 in the US and got them on MTV (even if it was only on 120 minutes with Dave Kendall).

At that critical time, 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell, who was notoriously difficult for bands to work with, decided to go in a different direction. Despite the success of "HOLV", he and the band both cited personal and artistic differences, and it was the last 4AD record by the Cocteaus. They made two more records, which were both much more commercially accessible before they themselves called it quits in 1996.

The Cocteaus may or may not have been the most profitable band on the 4AD label, but they're absolutely the band that defined that label. Watts-Russell would later say that "Heaven or Las Vegas" was the best album his label ever put out.

It remains in my desert island list, and it always will.


Bill Purdy said...

I like "Heaven" quite a bit, but my fave Cocteau's record is Treasure, and my fave song is "Carolyn's Fingers." Still, I remember quite well when this one was released. Thanks for the memory!

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Anonymous said...

HOLV changed my life. I remember Sept 18 1990 very well. I was at Hartt School of Music in Hartford, CT. I rushed to Strawberries to buy the CD after class. I also saw an advert for them coming on tour. I remember calling Tower records in NYC and buying a Ticket for the Beacon in NY. I went alone. Took a bus-saw a flyer for a show at the Ritz for the next night. Took another bus next day to see them again.Best 2 nights!! Froze my ass off Nov 13th and 14th in NYC- Then again in Boston April 3rd 1991.I got to meet and know them personally on next 2 tours. I had more courage and they welcomed me with open arms. I actually traveled across the states in 94 & 96! Thanks 4 listening! Scott