COCTEAU TWINS Milk & Kisses (Fontana)

Let it not be forgotten that, both under their own name and as part of 4AD’s criminally underappreciated supergroup This Mortal Coil, the Cocteau Twins have been responsible for some of the most hauntingly beautiful and (hell, why not) ethereal music ever recorded (prime examples being their "Blue Bell Knoll" and "Heaven Or Las Vegas" albums). Since signing to Fontana, however, they’ve released only the disappointing (gorgeous single "Bluebeard" excepted) "Four-Calendar Café" and this sorry effort. To be blunt, "Milk & Kisses" is dull: forty meandering minutes during which nobody seems to be having a good time. The trademarks that always made the Cocteaus such a glistening listen in the past - Elizabeth Fraser’s gurgling vocalising and alien lyrics, Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde’s feather-pillow music - have almost been ditched. Fraser sometimes sings in something approaching recognisable English (we can’t have that, can we!) whilst drum machines plod and guitars jangle in the sort of pedestrian fashion that you’d hope bands would restrict to their rough demos. As, unsurprisingly in the light of their recent releases, the Twins have now been ditched by Fontana, we can only hope that their next release (estimated time of arrival at this rate 1999) will show evidence of them being shaken out of their torpor.

COCTEAU TWINS Lullabies To Violaine Volume 1 (4AD)

The first half of what used to be a four disc box set, “Lullabies To Violaine Volume 1” is a “Substance”-style survey of the Cocteau Twins’ extended play career, from “Lullabies”, released in October 1982, to the “Iceblink Luck” single, eight years later. For me this covers the most interesting portion of their career: soon after they signed to Fontana, their music becoming a compromised impersonation of itself.

Listening to the earliest material gathered here, it seems staggering that anybody could ever (and repeatedly) have tagged the band as ethereal. The drum machine beats are heavy and often graceless, the guitars abrasive and Liz Fraser’s vocals are far from the infant gurgle of years to come: if anything they sound like a softer-focus Siouxsie & The Banshees. I actually saw them at around this time, supporting Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, but being eight years old I had no intimation of the significance of what I was witnessing. Only years later, on reading of the Cocteaus’ OMD support slot in “The Rough Guide To Rock”, did my distant memories of a shrieking red-headed lady and the thudding, confrontational noise of that unnamed opening act suddenly make sense.

So it is that much of the early material documented on “Lullabies To Violaine Volume 1” could charitably be described as challenging. Yet having struggled through the opening few tracks, it’s probably only Liz Fraser’s unconventional vocals that distance “Peppermint Pig” from what New Order and The Cure were up to at round about the same time. “Laughlines” and “Hazel” are frenzied tarantellas, but all twelve inches of “Sugar Hiccup” are relatively balmy, if somewhat ragged compared to their fluffier future soundscapes. Similarly, the surroundings render “From The Flagstones” reflective, even if its bass boom and drum machine clatter are a bit Fisher Price. “Because Of Whirl-Jack” almost jangles itself into the same space as Smiths instrumentals such as “Oscillate Wildly”, Fraser’s incantations aside. And if some of her singing here – such as on “Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops”, or the Siouxsie howl that opens “Quisquose” - sounds a little forced and breathless at times, minutes later on “Aikea-Guinea” there’s a delicious butterfly flutterby lilt in her voice.

On the second disc the tide starts to turn towards the shinier, fluffier, stereotypically Cocteaus sound, rendering some fairly tacky rhythm box programming fondant sweet on “Ribbed And Veined” and “Watchlar”, and the uneasy calm of “Melonella” is like a ritual for the ears. “Those Eyes, That Mouth” moves in giddy melodic spirals, and the gorgeous tumbling roll of “Iceblink Luck” might be this set’s crowing achievement.

Despite, or maybe because of, the uncompromised purity of its execution, there are a few things that distance “Lullabies To Violaine Volume 1” from the perfect listening experience. The yawning four year gap between “Love’s Easy Tears” and “Iceblink Luck” – during which one of their finest albums, 1988’s “Blue Bell Knoll”, was released, unsullied by single support – means that this compilation is flawed as a chronological contour map of the development of the Cocteaus sound. Equally, its gargantuan length illustrates just how oppressive their music can be in stretches significantly greater than the 40 minute span of most of their studio albums. And finally, the way it kind of shatters the group’s ethereal image rather hammers the lid down on one of the more effective journalistic clichés of the last quarter century.