For Whom The Blue Bell Knolls

It wasn’t always easy being able to admit my love for Cocteau Twins. Now that I’m in my 40s, middle-aged with an odd-shaped balding head it doesn’t really matter what I admit freely. No one is listening, nor do they care even if they’re in earshot of my incessant Midwest groaning. But being a metal head in Yuckety Yuk, Indiana in the late 80s/early 90s was a balancing act of testosterone ragin’ while keeping your sensitive side neatly tucked away. Maybe you’d keep that soft side of you in some old shoe box under your bed with a pair of your baby shoes, or buried in the backyard with a signed head shot of Soleil Moon Frye and a Popeye t-shirt your mom bought you when you were 8. You couldn’t show weakness in front of other sweaty, over-nourished metalheads or you were likely to be shunned from the group. You’d be sent to the woods to be eaten by wolves. Or worse, Pentecostals.

Point is, a band like Cocteau Twins was about as alien in my adolescent stomping grounds as ,well, aliens. You know, like Hanger 18 aliens. But there was something about Elizabeth Fraser’s voice that dug right into my freakish, greasy teen soul. It was haunting, ghostly, and ethereal like some divine whisper from the universe itself. Of course at 16-years old I would’ve said something more like “What the fuck? This is weird…but good weird like Brazil or potato chips on my bologna sandwich.” I can distinctly remember sitting over at my best friend Jason’s house on a Saturday night re-watching the previous week’s episode of 120 Minutes. We’d dig into Concrete Blonde, My Bloody Valentine, and whatever other 4AD band was the “it” alternative flavor of the week. Then Cocteau Twins’ “Heaven Or Las Vegas” came on and I sort of felt stunned. Like, what was happening? Is this what it feels like to be touched by an angel? Or groped by a ghost? As Jason started to fast forward the video I say to him “Hey man. Let’s just let this one play, you know for shits and giggles? We could just sit here silently and make fun of it in our minds without words. Or something.” Fortunately, Jason was thinking those same thoughts I was thinking about these Scottish dream poppers. We couldn’t put it into words, but we both knew there was something special going on. Of course we immediately threw on some Suicidal Tendencies or Faith No More and pretended we didn’t just have a moment.

I moved on, 120 Minutes was cancelled, Matt Pinfield got a new job, and I sort of forgot about Cocteau Twins for a couple years until The Crow came out and that soundtrack ruled my brain for most of 1994. One song in-particular got my attention. Medicine’s “Time Baby III”. It was a really cool song, but what really stuck out was the guest vocals of Elizabeth Fraser. It was a voice I hadn’t heard in a long time and it reminded me that I needed to go back to Cocteau Twins and investigate further.

Then about 20 years went by.

Back in 2014 I started up on Cocteau Twins. Having gone “full vinyl”, I knew I had to find some of their albums on the big, black circle. The first album I bought was Heaven Or Las Vegas. It had to be that. That was the album that broke through my big dumb brain in the first place. “Cherry-Coloured Funk” and “Heaven Or Las Vegas” were in my DNA. But the the second one I bought was Blue Bell Knoll. On a streaming binge I happened across the album and was pretty much floored by the whole thing. “Carolyn’s Fingers” felt like a chill going down my spine. Once I heard that I was done.

There are better albums by Cocteau Twins than Blue Bell Knoll. I’m a big fan of Garlands. I love the post-punk vibe and that I can hear where The Cure got their sound from on a song like “Wax and Wane”. Treasure was the first album that saw that truly mesmerizingly beautiful tone they would go on to perfect on Heaven Or Las Vegas. So where does that leave an album like Blue Bell Knoll? Well, to my ears, it’s the last Cocteau Twins album where they still sounded like a small band with very big ideas.

“Blue Bell Knoll” starts out with some of those dark, ominous tones of the early records but quickly adds some synth flourishes and stacks Fraser’s beautiful vocals on top to give the song a much welcomed dreaminess. “Athol-brose” is just absolute brilliance. It’s the moment Dorothy steps from her black and white farmhouse to soak in the technicolor beauty of Oz. It’s dizzying and an overload of the senses. No band sounds like this. Just Cocteau Twins. That’s it. “For Phoebe Still A Baby” feels like some alien lullaby. The bass puts me in mind of mid-80s Cure. I think there’s a thru-line between the two bands. It’s like they both drank from the same Gothic well and somehow worked through whatever demons they were struggling with. This track sounds like contentment with an overcast day.

I have to admit that for years I thought Cocteau Twins were Swedish or French or Finnish. There was something in Fraser’s vocals that made me think what she was singing was not English. I thought it was a very foreign language that was being sung. I was wrong. Cocteau Twins are a Scottish band, but I still think there’s a very alien lean to the words sung by Elizabeth Fraser. She sings beautifully, but it sounds like a language made up by Fraser. The magic in Cocteau Twins, besides the dream-like clouds of flangered bass, guitar, and walls of synth created by Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde, was that voice. It got me every time I heard it. Elizabeth Fraser had a voice like no other. For my money no one has yet to top it.

Every song on Blue Bell Knoll carried some sort of strange magic. “Cico Buff”, “Spooning Good Singing Gum”, “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat”, and “Ella Megalast Burls Forever” all contain some bit of melancholy genius. There’s absolute pop perfection contained on every track here. If it was a fair and just world, Cocteau Twins would’ve been played on pop radio stations worldwide instead of Debbie Gibson, Taylor Dayne, and NKOTB. Of course the population at large couldn’t take this kind of beauty on their commute to work or bus ride to school. There would’ve been massive existential crisis, love-ins in every county courthouse, and the world as we know it would’ve changed exponentially for the better. We couldn’t have that.

Come to think of it, this actually might be their best album.

I guess it’s better this way. A band like Cocteau Twins will live on forever, allowing future generations to discover their timeless dream pop. Their ghostly songs can fill earbuds in the future and maybe shine a little ethereal light on whatever shit show we may be enduring in 10, 20, or 30 years. And hopefully by then, no matter a metal head in the Midwest or a goat herder in Afghanistan, the Cocteau Twins can be enjoyed openly, freely, and without shame.

I love you Soleil Moon Frye. I always have.



Ribbed and Veined

So yesterday was the big day. The dance with the doc. My one on one with a scalpel. My herniated disc was going to be dealt with surgically. I have to say, I was not looking forward to it. In fact I was kind of dreading it. I was wanting it taken care of. I was tired of the limp and pain and not being able to run and exercise, or show my brute strength by re-arranging the furniture in our living room just for the hell of it. But man, I was not looking forward to this surgery. Something about being knocked out, intubated, and cut open like a Thanksgiving turkey just doesn’t sound like fun. Plus when you’re dealing with the spine it’s all the more scary.

IMG_1629But what choice does a person have? You gotta get things taken care of, especially when it affects your quality of life. I’ve got (hopefully)quite a few more years left on this rock. I want them to be the best they can be.

Well, the surgery went great. I was wheeled away right around 1pm. As we were wheeling through the halls to the operating room the anesthesiologist said “Here’s something to calm you down a bit” and he injected something in my IV. Within about 30 seconds my eyes were getting heavy and the voices seemed to be fading to the back of the room. Next thing I know I’m groggily waking up in recovery with a nurse asking how I was feeling. My wife came back to check up on me, then sent my parents back. Only one person could come back at a time. We were on the road soon enough and it was over. I spent the rest of the evening in a post-anesthesia haze. I tried eating a piece of leftover pizza. I was full after about three bites and gave the other piece to my wife. They gave me this cool pack to wear. It’s a piece of fabric that wraps around your torso that has a tube in the middle of it. The tube goes down to a cooling unit you fill with ice and water. When it’s turned on the water runs up into the tubes in the pack which then cools the wound area. It’s really quite ingenious, and so much better than having to use ice packs. You wear it three hours, then leave it off for three hours. That’s been my existence since yesterday.

IMG_1628Despite the soreness and stiffness in my lower back, I feel like I’m not doing too badly considering. Between the pain meds and ice pack, the pain is there but manageable. The worst thing is getting up out of a chair. It’s a struggle. But hey, I’m only a little over 24 hours post-op. It’ll get easier.

There’s nothing more healing(well, besides those pain pills) than music. My parents came by and dropped off a bag from my friends at Karma Records. They picked up the new Black Mountain and the Govt. Mule/John Scofield live record. They were waiting for me at the store and my parents were kind enough to make a vinyl run for me this afternoon, then refused to take my money. In the bag was an extra record, the recently reissued Cocteau Twins compilation Tiny Dynamite/Echoes In A Shallow Bay. My good friend John threw that in as a “get well” gift. Good, good people he is.

Okay, just wanted to drop a quick one here and let you all know I’m doing well. Sore, but good.

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Ashrae Fax : Never Really Been Into It

ashrae faxEvery once in a while you happen across an album that surprises you. Maybe it doesn’t change your life or blow your mind, but it stops your brain from that constant run of streaming real-world problems. You momentarily just shut the cranial machine down for a half hour or so and allow yourself to enjoy some music. Ashrae Fax’s Never Really Been Into It is one of those shutdown moments for me. For its 40 minute run time I forget about responsibilities, deadlines, school obligations, and what I need to pull out of the freezer to thaw out for dinner. For 40 minutes I can take a load off in my mind palace and listen to Renee Mendoza sing in her Elizabeth Fraser-meets-Siouxie Sioux otherworldly coo. It’s a pretty nice place to be, my mind palace. Yep, there’s a mini-fridge stocked with craft beer and plenty of black lights.

Musically, North Carolina’s Ashrae Fax sound like they hail from Leeds in 1984, not Greensboro in 2014. That’s the beauty of this gothic pop band. The Synsonics-sounding drum beats and ethereal keys give the ears a taste of Cocteau Twins and Siouxie Sioux and the Banshees, with the black fingernails of Robert Smith. Having been immersing myself in the Cocteau Twins recently reissued Blue Bell Knoll, Never Really Been Into It is definitely giving me that vibe, with even a hint of This Mortal Coil. For those who worship at the alter of 4AD(like me), then Ashrae Fax have got your number. Besides Mendoza, the band also consists of Alex Chesney, Mike Soter, and Robert Parker. They all work together to create a dreamy, goth-coated pop melancholy that is made for getting lost into.

“Dreamers Tied To Chairs” is an exquisite piece of goth pop that’ll make you long for 1984 and late night summer breezes as the needle skimmed over Treasure. What’s nice about this album is that it’s not in a hurry. These songs take their time getting to the end, giving you plenty of time to get lost in them. “CHKN” sounds like what would’ve happened if The Motels had been on 4AD. Guitars that chime like primo-era Cure, right before Smith’s hair grew to Redwood heights and he still had some of those pop tendencies in him prior to getting so sad and angry. “The Big Lie” is more tense in its delivery, bringing to mind some contemporaries like The Soft Moon and Cold Cave, with Mendoza showing her fangs a bit. It’s like Kate Bush getting all post-punk on us. “You Make Me Question My Mind(in a thousand words about time)” is a quirky pop song that has the feel of a bizarro-world number one hit, somewhere in the days of ‘Alf’ and “it’s morning in America again”, hidden in the middle of a 120 Minutes broadcast. “Intexus” takes the Elizabeth Fraser likeness to a whole new level. Close your eyes, you’d swear you were listening to some lost b-side to Garlands‘ “Wax And Wane”. Comparisons abound, but only to give the uninitiated a reference point. You can’t go wrong with a single song on Ashrae Fax’s sophomore album. This is catnip for 80s kids and 120 Minutes dwellers.

I really should go pull something out of the freezer for dinner, but I think I’ll just sit on my comfortable couch inside my mind palace for another 40 minutes and spin Never Really Been Into It one more time. Then I’ll get up. Promise.

8.2 out of 10



Evening Spin: House Of Bread’s ‘Hypnic Jerk’

DSC04136I’ve spent the last two days listening to nothing but what I believe to be my 10 favorite albums of the year. I finished the last record just minutes ago, The Flaming Lips’ The Terror. After listening to nothing but those ten records since Sunday afternoon I can safely say that I made the right choices. Numbers 11 through 20 are nothing to stick your nose up at, but 1 through 10 are by far the most-played and loved by me this year. It’s been a great year for music. If you didn’t find something or several things to love about music this year, then, well, I guess you didn’t. I’m not gonna bust your chops about it or anything. But really? Nothing?

So to refresh the palate I thought I’d throw on one of my favorite albums of 2012. House Of Bread’s Hypnic Jerk was a great mix of dream pop and shoegaze haze that was the highlight of the summer of 2012. House Of Bread was a band out of Fort Wayne, Indiana, started by Omar Afzaal in order to record some intimate bedroom songs when he wasn’t recording in Castles with his best pal Bob Haddad. Well, Haddad heard these little bedroom songs and wanted in on the action so House Of Bread became a duo. What does this album sound like? A mix of electronic pop, swathes of synth spread over the proceedings, and reverbed guitars hang over the tracks like a purple cloud…or something. One of the real highlights for me(there are many on this album)is side b’s opener “Defeated Bones”. It’s a mix of Pornography-era Cure, Blue Bell Knoll Cocteau Twins, and a touch of early Smashing Pumpkins. It’s an epic track that puts a pretty bow on the sound House Of Bread were going for(and triumphantly achieved.)

“Lampshade Dreams”, “There Are Rooms We’ve Never Shown You”, and “Psychic Races” all deliver the goods. You never get the feeling Afzaal and Haddad were in any hurry to reach the end of these songs. They say the journey is just as important than the destination. House Of Bread proved that track by track on Hypnic Jerk.


***Omar Afzaal moved to New York in early 2013, leaving House Of Bread in indefinite hiatus, while Bob Haddad moved out to the Pacific Northwest. Here’s to a long distance internet recording session and a follow-up someday. Someday.