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.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

The snoopy snow cone machine

It baffles my mind sometimes when I think about the things we were allowed to do when I was a kid and the things that we were forbidden. I guess this thought was fueled when I was playing an arcade game version of lawn darts a week ago. The real thing, of course, has been banned in the United States and Canada since the 1980s, but this is the kind of toy that children were allowed to, and even encouraged to play with when I was a kid.
This is absolute lunacy. Give a handful of kids some sharp metal pointy projectiles, and it's only a matter of nanoseconds before they're throwing them at each other. It doesn't matter whether the object is a lethal weapon or a nerf ball: kids throw things at each other.

I never had lawn darts, but one Christmas I got a pub darts board and a ping-pong table. I resisted the urge to throw the darts at my sister, but within a couple of days, the ping-pong table was perforated by dart hits. Intentional hits. My mother, being the both the disciplinarian of the family and a very crafty person, proceeded to give me a well-deserved beating with one of the ping-pong paddles. It, too, had taken on more dart hits than the dart board had. Her preferred weapon of choice was a wooden spoon, and she broke more than a few administering punishment on me. Her instrument in this instance, though, was the ping-pong paddle. The significance of that deliberate choice was lost on me at the time, but it was brilliant.

I don't mean, even for a second, to paint my mother out to be some beast like Joan Crawford. On the contrary; my mother was and is a wonderful woman. This was, after all, the 1970s, when it was perfectly fine for parents to beat holy hell out of their children when they were acting like little assholes. Even in the middle of the Big Star grocery store. It's not like we were hit with lead pipes or barbed wire, but it's not like we were put in "time out" either. Punishments were fair and just. Sometimes, I even learned a lesson. Most often not, though.

That's not the point here, however. I'm supposed to be talking about the Snoopy Snow Cone Machine. And I'll get there. Trust me.

Parents were allowed by cultural standards to issue physical punishments to their children. Children were allowed to have toys that could easily become deadly weapons. We were encouraged to play tackle football in the street. We were encouraged to play around on open construction sites. Kids didn't wear helmets when they rode their bicycles. Somehow, most of us survived childhood unscathed.

For all the things we (and I've been using "we" in the editorial sense) were allowed to have and for all the things we were allowed and encouraged to do, it sometimes blows my mind what my sister and I were not allowed to have.

My sister, who is almost four years older than I, really really wanted an Easy-bake Oven. All little girls did. The modern easy-bake oven uses different technology and lots of safety features. It's pretty much foolproof and accident-proof. Back in the early days, though, this was a dangerous toy. The original oven resembled a real oven, but used a high wattage incandescent light bulb instead of a heating element. Although the light bulb as heat source was marginally less dangerous than a heating element, there were no safety features. This meant that a clumsy, uncoordinated, or overly-curious little girl had a very good chance of putting her hand directly onto the hot-burning 100-watt light bulb. My mother forbid Laura to have one, saying "If it can cook a cake, it can cook your hand". Again, the modern oven has a tiny slot into which the cake pan is shoved and a tiny slot to pull it out; there's no chance of coming into contact with the heat source. I'm pretty sure that even today, my sister, now aged 42, would be excited about getting an easy-bake oven. If for no other reason, than for the sake of nostalgia.

I usually got what I wanted, and I never really wanted much. Footballs, magic kits, digital watches. Things like that. Although there wasn't really a safety issue (maybe there was, but I can't remember), I wasn't allowed to have a Snoopy Snow Cone Machine. I was obsessed with Snoopy for a while, and while I got things like Snoopy dolls and Peanuts books and Snoopy lunchboxes and Snoopy Halloween costumes, I never got the one thing I wanted the most.

While other kids were getting expensive birthday presents like a trampoline or an Atari 2600, I just wanted a Snoopy Snow Cone Machine, which probably retailed at $7.95. I know I liked the commercial:

Apparently, the folks at Hasbro were merely cashing in on the late '70s pandemic that was Snoopy Fever. They already had a similar snow cone machine in the market with a similar ad campaign. It looks like they simply rebranded it with an iconic namesake. Check out the Snowman Snow Cone Machine commercial:

Until I started writing this post, I'd never heard of the Snow Man Snow Cone machine, and I probably wouldn't have wanted one of those. Proof that this toy is all about the celebrity name. In any case, I never got the machine, and there was never any parental commentary like "If it'll crush ice, it'll crush your fingers". There was just flat refusal. I spent the better part of my late childhood and adulthood resenting the fact that I never got the sought after piece of cheap plastic.

It's come to my attention that I was far from being alone there. Whether they've been re-introduced to the toy market or they never left the market, you can still get them. I've seen a few youtube videos of adults my age unboxing their very first Snoopy Snow Cone Machine and making their delicious treat. All with lukewarm reception. I think this one is a fairly good example of a grown man actually struggling to get the thing to produce one paltry cone.

If it takes that much work from a 30-something man, I hate to imagine how much effort it would require from a seven-year old kid. And now I'm glad that I never had one.