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!
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?
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”.