Will Heggie, original Cocteau Twins bassist,
lasted through Garlands
and two EPs (Lullabies and Peppermint Pig),
but he was gone by the release of Head Over Heels,
a mere 14 months after the release of the debut. Rather than
replace him, Liz Fraser and Robin Guthrie carried on without
him. I am sure at the time this seemed like a shocking idea
since Heggie's bass drove Garlands,
but in retrospect it was the greatest thing that could have
happened for the band. (No disrespect meant to Mr. Heggie, who
went on to do great things with the band Lowlife. Unfortunately,
Lowlife's releases are nigh unto impossible to find, but what
i have heard by them is very good. So perhaps the split worked
out for the best for all concerned.)
though it was for it's time, was very much of it's time.
That is, despite some unusual ideas and styles, it wasn't that
far from what everyone else was doing. Head Over Heels,
on the other hand, is the start of something new and fresh.
Guthrie and Fraser have begun to experiment, to play with the
very format of pop, and what it is possible to do with sonic
textures. While Garlands
was clearly made in the early 1980's, Head Over Heels
still sounds fresh today.
With Heggie gone, Guthrie took the reins of the band. He played
the guitar and the bass and programmed the drum machine. Not
to play Fraser's contribution down, but Guthrie really made
the music here.
Fraser, to her benefit, really came into her own on this album.
Her voice is more confident and stronger than it was on Garlands.
It is as if the year of singing had been a workout for her
lungs and now they were "more buff" (if you can even apply
such terms to the lungs). On Head Over Heels she
begins to experiment with what she can sing. Her voice, she
has realized, is an instrument with a wide range, and she
has begun to explore it's expressiveness.
I have always liked this album, and the re-mastered version
is wonderful. Despite being close to the fully realized Cocteau
vision, there were moments of muddiness in the sound in a few
places on the original. They are cleaned up here, and this album
The first track is When Mama Was Moth, which starts
off with a deep echoed drum hit and Guthrie's guitar stretched
out in a long solo. Dark and epic, the song builds to a slow
burn. Then Frazer comes in over tinkling piano. She's singing
plain English here (something she didn't always do), but the
words are still mysterious and vague. This is, simply, a magnificent,
On Five Ten Fiftyfold Fraser cuts lose. The bass wobbles
and Guthrie's guitar is a haze of acoustic arpeggios, but Fraser
is the focus of this song. Her voice is strong and loud, and
the light saxaphone that gives it accompaniment is wonderfully
understated. The tune ends with a nice guitar freakout. I always
liked this song, but when i look at the tracklisting it never
jumps out at me. Still, it's good stuff.
Track three is Sugar Hiccup, which has been a fan favorite,
judging purely on the fact that they did this song in every
fricking bootleg i have recorded between 1983 and, oh, 1991.
I think they even were doing it off and on during the '94 and
'96 tours. So i have heard this song innumerable times in many
different forms, and i am, i think, sick of it. Still, taking
an objective step back, it's a pretty good song. It's a mid-paced
Cocteau number, with Fraser's voice clear and confident in front,
singing a lovely melody over Guthrie's precise arrangement.
It is a showcase for Fraser, and she shows her range quite nicely.
In Our Angelhood hearkens back to the sound of Garlands.
It's more punk than dreampop, more noise than ambience. Coming
after Sugar Hiccup it provides stark contrast. From the
wandering pop of Sugar Hiccup to the fast-paced, almost
frenetic noise of In Our Angelhood is a big jump; and
that's one of the things i like about this album: it's all over
the map, sonically. Anyway, i always imagined this song as one
of those early 80's videos where the big-haired musicains (and
the two of them had some HUGE hair around this time) stood dancing
and miming playing on a darkened windswept landscape, surrounded
by light cloth that billowed in the wind while their shellaced
hair stood still as sequoias. Unfortunately, i have the fan
released video compilation, and there was no video for this
song. A minor disappointment. However, this tune fits nicely
on mix tapes between early Depeche Mode and pretty much any
80's release by New Order.
After that bity of fury comes the album's weakest track, Glass
Candle Grenade. (Oddly enough, there was an Atlanta band
in the mid-90's called Glass Candle Grenade. I never got to
see them, but i always wondered if they were named for this
song.) This is a vaguely jazzy track dominated by a monotonous
drumbeat. A short interlude, if you will.
In the Gold Dust Rush is another great tune. Acoustic
guitar strumms furiously over highly distorted guitar, but the
acoustic is mixed high, giving an odd ringing/clanking sound.
Fraser seems to be singing lower in her register, almost with
a jazzy rhythm. Then, in the middle of the song, it inexplicably
becomes all spacey, and synths come to the front and the drums
sputter like my dad's old Harley. Very interesting, and, in
many ways, a premonition of what was to come in later albums.
From deep space The Twins descend to a very gothy depth on
The Tinderbox (Of a Heart). This song is dominated by
dark synths that burble under Dead Can Dance-ish primal druming
and a looped xylophone melody. The song has a vaguely menacing
tone, but is a good song nonetheless.
After gothy menace, the Cocteaus give us Multifoiled,
which is a silly little jazz song. It's fun and light and not
Next is My Love Parmour, which is another live favorite.
I like the album version better than any live version i have
heard, because the album version features a stunted drum hit
(early, proto/pre-IDM style distortion) and Guthrie arpeggioing
like The Edge.
Finally, the album closes with Musette and Drums. This
song has a great chorus with Fraser's voice soaring, the drum
machine chugging away, and Guthrie's guitar in duplicate: one
mounrful layer and one exultant, grinding layer. This is a pretty
good tune that has a nice climax of guitar and voice.
So in general, you see, this album is more experimental than
the one that came before it. It sounds fresh to my ears even
today, and in many ways introduces sounds that Guthrie and Fraser
were to explore in-depth for quite some time to come.
This is the bridge in their career, connecting their pseudo-goth
days to their dreampop days. If you are a fan of either genre,
then this is a worthwhile purchase.
One note on versions: if you go trolling used shops looking
for this, the version you are most likely to find is one on
which the EP Sunburst and Snowblind is combined
with the album. That's a great EP, and combining the two really
works. However, the re-mastering has made slight improvements
in tone and sound levels here, so both are worth having. Or
actually, if you have the EP Box Set, which contains a copy
of Sunburst and Snowblind, but you don't have
Head Over Heels, then go buy the re-mastered version.
So: Cocteau Twins lost a member, but branched out in a wholly
new direction, musically speaking. This album must have been
shocking when it was released: a breath of something new and
unique. And yet, there were deeper levels of experimentation
to plumb. But first the band had to find a new member.