Since I started writing this blog, I’ve written about many Scottish bands. These have included Blue Nile, Primal Scream, The Bathers, Fortuny, Lloyd Cole and The Commotions, Love and Money and the band I’m going to write about today, the Cocteau Twins. I’ve previously written two articles about the Cocteau Twins, on their albums Heaven Or Las Vegas and Milk and Kisses. The album I’m going to write about today Four-Calendar Cafe, is quite different from these two other albums. There is less of an ambient feel about the album, it’s more pop oriented and Liz Fraser’s lyrics are much clearer than on previous albums. The album’s title is taken from a passage in William Least-Heat Moon’s book, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America. Released in November 1993, this was the penultimate album the Cocteau Twins would release before splitting up in 1998.

Four-Calendar Cafe begins with Know Who-You Are At Every Age. Drums and guitar open the track, the sound emerging from your speakers in waves. Mostly, the sound is quite soft and melodic, apart from the drums which have a slightly sharper sound. When Liz Fraser’s vocal enters, it is much clearer, but still has that lovely ethereal sound. Her voice is restrained, soft and seems at odds with the soundscape growing around her. As if paying homage to her beautiful voice, guitars chime, a gentleness present in Robin Guthrie’s guitar playing. Meanwhile, Simon Raymonde’s drumming is powerful, and sometimes, threatens to overpower Liz’s fragile sounding vocal. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen. Maybe it would’ve been better to move the drums further back in the mix. However, during the track, Liz’s sings beautifully, accompanied by some lovely chiming guitars. The track seems to wash over you, soothing you, massaging your soul, demonstrating the soulfulness of the Cocteau Twins music.

After such a good opening track, things get even better with Evangeline. This is down to an outstanding performance by the band on the album. As a distant guitar is heard, a drum crashes, then Liz sings. She and the band, slow things way down. Her vocal is really slow. Likewise the drums are played slowly, space aplenty between each beat. Even the guitars get in on the act, helping create a spacious ambient soundscape. Central to the track’s success, is Liz’s vocal. It’s slow and delicate, with a haunting beauty. Midway through the track, layers of guitar play, filling the sound out. A gentle atmospheric sound created by a synth accompanies the band. It’s like a gentle desert wind blowing, and its addition is a masterstroke, adding the final touch to the track. By the end, you’ve been fortunate to hear an ambient track that’s laid back, understated and melodic.

Chiming guitars play brightly, announcing the arrival of Bluebeard. The introduction sounds more populist than on previous albums, pointing to the more pop orientated direction of this album. No guitars drenched in feedback, here.  That wouldn’t appeal to the “masses”. From the start, the sound is hugely melodic, just guitars and drums, with Liz’s vocal, much clearer, soaring high towards the heavens. Ethereal and spiritual describe her vocal. Beautiful too. For nearly four minutes, she gives one of her best vocals on the album. Sometimes, she’s unsure, questioning, wondering in the lyrics whether he’s the best man for her. Behind her, the rest of the band give an equally impressive performance, proving they’re the best men to accompany her. Bluebird maybe is an example of the more pop oriented direction of the album, but also demonstrates just how hugely talented a band the Cocteau Twins were.

Unlike the previous track, Theft and Wandering Around Lost doesn’t have the same bright start. Instead, it’s a slightly more subdued, almost duller sounding combination of plodding drums, broody bass and guitars that play. It’s only when Liz sings that the atmosphere lightens and brightens. Her voice is a complete contrast the what went before. Thereafter, the arrangement brightens, becomes more melodic. It’s fuller than on previous tracks, but even slower than Bluebeard. The track meanders along, Liz’s voice melodically fills out the sound with harmonies. They have a dreamy, otherworldly sound, which only Liz Fraser can create. Less pop oriented than the previous track, this is much more what I’d expect from the Cocteau Twins, a track that’s one-part lush and ethereal, the other, broody yet melodic.

Cymbals are played gently at the start of Oil of Angels. Then, straight away, a slow full arrangement opens up. It’s a combination of drums, bass and guitar, with Liz’s vocal at the front. The arrangement is dichotomy. At the start it’s partly dark, fulsome, yet quickly, the tempo increases. Bright guitars chime and jangle. All the time, the bass pulsates. Drums beat out a basic rhythm, adding occasional fills to add variety. However, what makes the track is Liz’s voice. Soaring high, gracefully and angelically, her voice is subtle yet fragile. What makes this such a stunning track is the subtlety of the arrangement, and the fragile beauty of Liz’s voice.

Similarly to Oil of Angels, Squeeze-Wax has a fuller arrangement, with a clever combination of guitars and rhythm section playing. Again, the arrangement has a duller sound at the start. Then, when Liz sings and the trademark chiming, jangling guitars play, the track brightens. Guitars reverberate, then chime. For the first time on the album, effects are unleashed, reverb used on the guitars. Used sparingly, this works well, adding a new dimension to the sound. Liz continues to brighten the sound, her ethereal voice rising and falling. Behind her a lovely dreamy, lush soundscape has developed, taking you on the most magical musical journey into the world of the Cocteau Twins. What this track demonstrates is that first appearances can be deceiving. After all, who’d have thought such a gorgeous track would emerge at the start of this track?

Percussion plays at the start of My Truth, giving the track a spacey, eery feel and sound. When Liz sings, her voice seems swathed, and has a lush, dreamy quality. Here, her voice is more beautiful than ever. It also seems so fragile. The arrangement almost has a minimalist quality, otherworldly sounds floating around, emerging from the mix. It’s ambient heaven, tranquil, spacious and floaty, like something from a mysterious sci-fi soundtrack. Quite simply My Truth is heavenly and beautiful, with a lovely fragility present throughout courtesy of Liz Fraser.

Essence begins slowly and moodily, meandering gently into life. It seems to gradually unfold, showing more of its understated beauty. Guitars chime slowly, synths produce space age sounds, they sweep into being accompanied Liz’s lovely slow thoughtful vocal. Like the rest of the arrangement, it’s really slow, full of space, with an understated quality. The track is just a combination of guitar, synths and Liz’s vocal. Swathes of guitars emerge, reverb slightly changing their sound. Synths interject and combine with the guitars. Together, they combine masterfully, producing a soothing, relaxing, ambient track. 

After the lovely laid back previous track, Summerland is totally different. It’s a louder, fuller track. Gone is the understated beauty of Essence, in is a powerful mixture of guitars, bass and drums. Altogether it’s very different, but there’s one constant, Liz’s voice. Whilst Guthrie and Raymonde produce a powerful soundscape, Liz’s voice is quicker, but still has that ethereal quality. She has to sing quicker to keep up with the rest of the arrangement. Unlike the previous track, no space has been left, it’s a constant stream of jangling guitars and frantic drums. This produces am impressive, powerful sound which seems at odds with Liz’s voice. Overall, this great track shows a very different side to the band than the previous track.

Four-Calendar Cafe ends with Pur which begins with frantic pounding drums, slow chiming guitars and sweeping synths. Liz Fraser’s voice follows the lead of the guitar and synths and sings really slowly. It’s a a thoughtful, careful vocal. For a while, her voice stays within the same range. Her voice athen quickens, soaring beautifully. Likewise the arrangement gets louder and fuller. The guitars especially become much louder momentarily. By now Liz’s vocal is surrounded by a lovely arrangement, melodic yet fulsome. Since I first heard Pur, I’ve always loved it. What makes it special is the mixture of the power provided by Raymond and Guthrie and Liz’s thoughtful and beautiful vocal.

Four-Calendar Cafe is quite different to the Cocteau Twins previous album Heaven Or Las Vegas. This album was indeed more pop oriented. It seems that the band were trying to attract a wider fan-base. This they managed, because the album was a commercial success. Of the ten songs on the album, there isn’t a bad one. Each are of the highest standard, and are among the best music the band ever produced. Liz Fraser’s voice was brilliant on each of the tracks, her voice one of the most beautiful and ethereal you’ll hear. However, there was more to the Cocteau Twins than Liz Fraser. Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde played a huge part in the band’s success. Together, the three of them produced some wonderful music over an eighteen year period.  Sadly, after this album, only one more Cocteau Twins album Milk and Kisses. However, for someone wanting an introduction to their music, Four-Calendar Cafe is a perfect place to start. Having said that, any of their final three albums are very listenable, and among my favorites. Standout Tracks: Know Who-You Are At Every Age, Evangeline, Squeeze-Wax and Essence. 


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