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  Head Over Heels  
  Cocteau Twins  
Original Release Date:
Re-release Date:
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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.)

Garlands, good 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 really shines.

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, epic track.

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 bad.

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.

Related Links:

This review is part of a series. Here is the whole thing, in order:

Thoughts on "re-mastering"
Head Over Heels

Also, i have previously reviews Stars and Topsoil, a greatest hits compilation from 2000.


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