The Cocteau Twins built their dream-pop kingdom by sidestepping rock & roll's cheap thrills, preferring to finger-trace communiqués on the dewy, stained-glass window through which they viewed the world. But the title Heaven or Las Vegas (1990) asked whether after eight years and a slew of releases their deep-pile magic-carpet ride of guitars, keyboards and voice was making manna or shtick for the black-mascara crowd.
a pared-down strategy that favors organic drum sounds and Elizabeth Fraser's soprano, making her lyrics occasionally decipherable. It's the final blow in the battle of beauty and the beat that has played out on the group's earlier releases, where mechanical rhythms often clipped the music's gossamer wings and Fraser's airy melodies seemed trapped in a web of echoing instruments.
More importantly, Four-Calendar Café finds the Cocteaus wallowing in one of rock's cheapest and best pleasures: big hooks. Nothing so condescending as a catchy lyric, mind you, but "Know Who You Are at Every Age" and "Evangeline" ride gentle guitar-bass-drums grooves that allow Fraser to insinuate her phrases into choruses based on memorable melodies that pack a sweet-tooth rush.
Record-label propaganda extols "a new, intriguing direction" in her lyrics, but who can tell? Besides, it doesn't matter if the suitor of Fraser's heroine in "Bluebeard" is "the right man" or "toxic" when Robin Guthrie's steel guitar demands attention. "Theft, and Wandering Around Lost" offers an equally unignorable chime of strings and keyboards, twining over a beckoning bass melody and Fraser's pretty warbling about "reality." And her laughing delivery of "Oil of Angels" makes the song giddy, worrisome and unforgettable.
Several numbers are stifled by a relapse into robo-beats. "Squeeze-Wax" suffocates beneath a generic folk/alternative-rock arrangement. And Four-Calendar Café could use a little of the espresso that powered the tempos on Heaven or Las Vegas. Nonetheless, the Cocteau Twins' old-fashioned popcraft opens the gates of their world a bit wider without compromising their signature atmospherics. (RS 677)