Elizabeth Fraser at Royal Festival Hall

So be honest now. When you first heard that Liz Fraser was coming out of retirement and doing a one-off (ok, two-off) show at Anthony Hegarty’s Meltdown series, did you think:

a. OMG! It’s going to be amazing! She’ll do all old Cocteaus stuff and sound just like the records and everything!

Or

b. Oh Christ. I hope it’s not a godawful mess.

?

Reading the comments about last night’s show on Drowned In Sound, The Grauniad and elsewhere, the consensus appeared to be mostly a. with a smattering of b’s. Which worried me a tad; after all, Cocteau Twins are a band that I’ve held close to my heart since my pre-teenage years and unlike almost everything else from then, I still hold very close to my heart now. Seeing Liz Fraser live again after so many years was an honour I simply couldn’t pass by, jetlag notwithstanding1, but seeing her live and not sound good would be heartbreaking enough for me – let alone how a bad show would make her undoubtably retreat back into her shell.

Plus there’s the fact that as a live band, Cocteau Twins were erratic at best. Early in their career, with the three of them and a reel-to-reel tape player providing the backing band, they weren’t bad, but as they expanded they could veer from sublime to hideously overblown, often within the space of a couple of songs (see bottom of this article for examples). One friend, who has played in bands for many years, recently said to me “I absolutely love the Cocteaus, but they were fucking awful when I saw them”. Given that they needed three guitarists onstage to replicate their songs, how would Liz get the sound right?

Happily enough, the answer to that is “quite well, really”. Old songs, of which there were more than a few, were performed deftly and respectfully by a band consisting of her current drummer partner (Liz, surely you know that’ll end in tears?), a bloke out of Coil2 with astonishing shoulderpads playing seven keyboards, and a guitarist (was that really Steve Hackett all the way through?) and bassist who tried to do the impossible and mimic two of the most distinctive players, well, ever. Neither managed it perfectly, both being low down in the mix and sounding somewhat muted. After all, one of the unusual aspects of the Cocteau Twins was that, despite their hippy-dippy sonic cathedrals of sound reputation, they could be quite a bruising affair, using the quiet-loud dynamic many years before Frank “Black” Black “Francis” picked up a Tele and started screaming for fun.

See? Loud. Got some balls there. So hearing “Donimo” live was stunning in many ways, but they didn’t quite capture that “Bloody hell, I wasn’t expecting that loud bit” dynamic. Likewise with “Blue Bell Knoll”; the climax was lacking the sheer power of Robin Guthrie’s playing. For a man who professed that he only used so many effects because he couldn’t play guitar properly, he certainly knew how to end a song with a whacking great big solo.

Then again, maybe Liz Fraser spent her many years in the Cocteaus inwardly screaming “WILL YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP ROBIN, I’M TRYING TO SING HERE”. Maybe she was sick and tired of him playing his beautiful, if somewhat intrusive guitar lines so high up the mix and this is her way of redressing the balance. Who can blame her? This is her gig now. Which brings me onto the other potential stumbling block for her return: Liz’s singing.

Now, in her day, Liz Fraser divided opinion into those who thought she was the voice of a choir of angels, and those who though she was a wibbly wibbly woo cobblers merchant who sang songs called Oomingmak because she wanted to be a happy little fairy prancing around Happyland3. With all this distance and the likes of Bjork and Joanna Newsom becoming far more successful with far more challenging voices, everyone looks back and realises that, you know what, she really could sing.

And she still can sing. Really, really sing. Like, proper voice of an angel stuff. I’m not being hyperbolic here, but the moment when, three songs in, during “Suckling The Mender”, she sang the “Rosa” bit (at 1:15 below), she hit the note absolutely perfectly, and sounded fucking astonishing.

For the first time in the best part of a year’s gig going, I had that amazing hairs-on-end feeling. Wasn’t the only time during the show either; “Athol-Brose” got me welling up, and “Cherry Coloured Funk”‘s chorus simply stunned. She is a far more controlled singer now; gone are the often distracting improvisations and warbles, and what is left is far more powerful as a result. It helped that the two backing singers were superb, dovetailing delicately without ever vanishing or dominating. They were less prevalent in the newer songs, with Liz clearly writing music purely for herself and her much older voice.

Yes, there were indeed new songs. Writing this review with the help of this marvellous set list (thank you, @adrianmasters84), I can at least hopefully name some, but Lord only knows if I’ve got them right:

Some of the songs were a little touched by the hand of later oh-doomy-bollocks Massive Attack, which was a tiny disappointment, but others – Underworker and possibly Make Lovely – were beautiful things. It’s nigh-on impossible to make a judgement on new material that you’ve never heard before, so I won’t, but let’s wait and see what the album is like when it finally makes its way to us, some time in 2022.

And anyway, if we’re being honest to ourselves, tonight was always going to be about Cocteau Twins. If my hunch is right, she wants the songs to sound this way now, and after the rubbish time she had for the last, ooh, seven years of the band’s existence, who’s to blame her? She’s publicly stated a number of times that she still doesn’t talk to Robin, and the wounds caused during their traumatic breakup remain unhealed.

One wonders if Simon and Robin were ensconsed in a box tonight, looking a little bit peeved that she’d reworked the songs to lessen the impact of their instruments4. Maybe it’ll lead to a reunion; it would be wonderful to hear them back in action, older and wiser and less prone to cocaine-influenced hissy fits. But I suspect she’ll be delighted with how these shows have gone, and surrounded by a band that whilst may not reach the heady heights the Cocteaus could reach, she’ll want to continue with a band that supports and nurtures her, as well as bringing out her confidence. Ironically, the shows could potentially make the prospects of a reunion even more distant; the mooted Coachella reunion of 2005 may remain unmooted.

So, mostly “a” then, the OMG option. Which pleases me intensely, and clearly pleased the mostly 40-plus crowd, who were so respectful and quiet during the songs, and so raucous with applause between the songs, that it nearly brought Liz to tears. We like having you back, Liz, and you know what? If it doesn’t ever work out with you and Robin and Simon then that’s just fine. Just don’t go away for 15 years again, ok?

MP3: Donimo by Cocteau Twins

MP3: Moses by Elizabeth Fraser

But the entire Cocteau Twins catalogue here. You are truly a fool if you do not.

1 Not an excuse, I know, but please excuse the rambling and non-sequitor laden nature of this post, but I’m knackered, and I’m writing this straight after the gig with a one-year old baby having a bit of a yell next door.

2 Of whom listen to this:

Ooh, takes me right back, that does.

3 Obviously I fall into the former camp, or I wouldn’t be writing this now. Sadly some influential people in the media and the music industry at large thought the latter, and they never seemed to get the kudos they so readily deserved. Cocteau Twins should have been huge.

4 It’s never been entirely clear who did the majority of the songwriting in the Cocteau Twins. All the tracks were credited to “Cocteau Twins”, and as far as I know, whilst Robin appeared to be the main writer of the music, Liz wrote all the vocal lines and the lyrics, and Simon had a major hand in the writing process too (it’s no shock that Victorialand, written without him, is the only weak point in their stunning 1984-1990 run of albums, EPs and singles). They are most likely as much Liz’s songs as the other two’s. If anyone knows anything more about this aspect of the Cocteaus, please comment!

A quick aside about live shows. See these examples:

1a. Orange Appled, recorded version:

1b. Orange Appled, live version (band, the bloke from Dif Juz & reel to reel):

See, bloody good isn’t it? The live version is fantastic.

2a. Summerhead, recorded version:

2b. Summerhead, live on Later (full band):

The live version, with three guitarists, a drummer and a percussionist, kicks ass. Properly. So much better than the recorded version that you realise that the studio was a deeply unhappy place for the band in 1993. Which leads me onto:

3a. Carolyn’s Fingers, record:

3b. Carolyn’s Fingers, live on Later (same session as 2b):

What a bloody mess. Just sounds awful; when they went wrong live, they really went wrong. Remember this is the same session in which they sounded so good doing “Summerhead”.

Leave a comment

10 Comments

  1. Brilliant review and analysis of La Fraser’s appearance and history. Echoes my thoughts exactly. V. well written too BTW.

  2. Couldnt have put it better…. During Domino my eyes were pearly dew drop drops

  3. David Cairns

     /  August 8, 2012

    It’s great to see a review of someone who actually knows what this is all about, and can appreciate where Liz is coming from. I think one of the reviews I read yesterday was headlined with something related to her not talking to the audience…..ridiculous.
    I last saw the Cocteaus 20 years ago in Glasgow and last night couldn’t quite believe I was hearing her sing their songs again. It was well worth the wait. I thought she was amazing. Let’s hope this is the start of things to come.

  4. The Cupcake Kid

     /  August 8, 2012

    hear hear

  5. large7

     /  August 9, 2012

    I liked seeing her and there were occasional moments of brilliance but her backing band didn’t work at all. Some of the fills the drummer did were embarrassing. As for the backdrop, I wanted fields of stars, not something that looked like it had been retrieved from a scrapyard covering whatever visuals they were using. Obviously she was trying to do something different with the Cocteau Twins songs which is good. Donimo was great but Blue Bell Knoll was horrible. FF Foxes was lovely. The new songs were patchy – if she hadn’t been singing on top of them I doubt anyone would have paid any attention at all. Very mixed evening really. A shame as there was potential for something magical across the board.

    As for the CT’s reforming I mostly hate it when bands reform – although I’d love to see them again. Either way I doubt it will happen and I don’t think these live shows are a precursor to that. The past was the past and in the case of he CT’s very lovely – leave it alone.

  6. loftandlost

     /  August 9, 2012

    Firstly, thanks to you all for your kind words – very much appreciate them!

    David Cairns – indeed, I saw that too. Can’t believe that someone would review Liz Fraser without having a basic idea of what she’s like. And I’ve seen far more uncommunicative musicians than her – M Ward for example – and that didn’t ruin my enjoyment one little bit.

    Large7 – see where you’re coming from with the backdrop, but I generally don’t worry about that sort of thing. The best backdrop I ever saw was by Massive Attack, who I otherwise found rather dreary. Will reserve judgement on the new songs, except that I thought one or two were pretty good.
    And I agree about bands reforming, mostly. The Pixies were wonderful (for a while) because they never got the credit they deserved in their first incarnation. Stone Roses? Couldn’t give a toss. Pavement? Meh. The only other band I’d like to see reform are The Smiths, which is probably even less likely due to the fact that Morrissey and Marr don’t seem to get on too well, and that Marr has been far too successful post-Smiths to have to relive old glories.
    As for the backing band; I personally thought they were ok and were probably doing what Liz wanted, rather than what we’d want the Cocteau Twins sound to be like. I would certainly say though that some of the keyboard sounds during the new songs were pretty dated.

    Anyway, thanks again all. Glad to hear you had as good a night as I did (mostly)

  7. John Peacock

     /  August 9, 2012

    I never got to see the Cocteaux (however much I loved them, I was *very* disorganised), so I’d been waiting an awfully long time for Monday’s concert. I’m glad to let go of the things that I didn’t appreciate (the sound, for example) in favour of the things I did – mostly the new material, strangely. The high point for me was the duet with Steve Hackett, partly because the solo guitar gave her voice a lot of space, partly because there was a connection between them that was sort of lacking in the group (I mean, the drummer was in a box) – I wonder what it would be like to hear her perform with an acoustic quartet, something that her voice doesn’t have to fight with.

    But then, I’m the kind of person who enjoyed the support. Does anyone know who they were and what they were singing?

  8. The Cupcake Kid

     /  August 10, 2012

    There has been quite a bit of criticism about the sound (especially the mix on Monday) and a fair few about the band in the reviews I’ve read. I’m glad to say there have been very few negative comments about Liz’s performance and that is encouraging but I suppose we should expect that from an audience probably made up almost exclusively of CT fans.

    What I don’t understand is exactly what a lot of these critics were expecting.

    Some seemed to almost resent a band being on stage at the same time as Liz. A lot have forgotten that you won’t get studio sound at a live gig (especially in The Festival Hall). Most don’t know (or care) who was in the band or why they were there.

    How many in the audience saw the Cocteaus live I wonder? What would they have thought of the sound/mix then if they had? The production on several CT recordings leaves a lot to be desired. Liz’s voice has always had a hard time competing with the rest of the band but with her inherent shyness and reluctance to perform live in recent years, it’s not surprising she wanted to hide behind the wall of sound for the first few numbers on Monday. I was concerned at the fragility of her vocals to begin with, but by the 3rd or 4th song all was good.

    As for the band, everyone on that stage on Monday was there for a reason. They’ve all worked together before and they all have a hand in Liz’s new material. They conjured up a sound which stirred emotions in me and that validates them. Yes, they sounded a bit ‘prog’. I was reminded of Genesis, Massive Attack, Portishead, Philip Glass, heck, even the Cocteau Twins at times! As Liz herself says, it’s all about textures and there were plenty of them.

    Hands up who’s heard a Mellotron playing live on stage before? How about a Moog Taurus pedal bass? All are aural textures we don’t hear that often, if at all. Add Liz Fraser and you have something truly unique and original.

    The mix and acoustics may not have been perfect in that hall, but I’ll die a happy man if the last song I ever hear is ‘Enoesque’. For me, that was the defining moment of the evening. That was the sound of Elizabeth Fraser and I love it.

  9. loftandlost

     /  August 10, 2012

    Some excellent points there, Cupcake Kid.

    I’m one of those lucky enough to have seen Cocteau Twins live, before they collapsed into disarray post-Heaven Or Las Vegas. And it was a great gig too. Thankfully I’m old enough and know enough about the band to understand that it was always going to be tough for Liz. There was an interview in the Guardian back in May when she said how much she struggled to be heard over Robin and Simon (thanks to my brother for pointing it out to me) and it was clear that this band is exactly what she wants to do. Whether that matches some people’s expectations, well, why should she care?

    Very good point about textures etc. However I’d say that I’ve been to the RFH before and the sound for the Sufjan Stevens show last year was incredible – you could hear each of the 11 or 12 instruments individually. Then again, Sufjan’s band have been touring for years, as opposed to just a handful of shows; plus Sufjan is an obsessive about his music to the point of breakdown (literally), so it’s no shock that he’d have a team around him to get it right. The difference in the mix between Mon and Tuesday (and even during the first few songs as you pointed out) shows that there’s still some work to be done, but as you say, what the hell were people expecting?

  10. Katarina

     /  April 23, 2013

    Great post! Thank you! Just love Cocteau Twins and esp. Liz’s voice. A truly outstanding band and esp. singer.

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