By: Eric G.
The Cocteau Twins carved an unique niche for itself for the better part of two decades, crafting textural dirges rich in both atmospherics and vocal histrionics. The robotic and detached percussion aside, this band made beautiful music with the strangest combination of heavily affected guitars, wildly impassioned vocals, and New Order-ish bass lines. Elizabeth Fraser’s voice is cold yet angelic and she flexes it in all the right places, giving the music an added edginess and tension. The swirling guitars are layered beneath Fraser’s lyrical wail and bassist Simon Raymonde plods methodically with articulate and emotional undercurrents.
The bulk of this material is culled from the John Peel sessions the band executed in the early 1980’s, most of which can be found on the band’s classic early EP’s, but the versions here seem more immediate and less labored than the originals. Twenty-three of the thirty songs span only two years, so we get little sense of the band’s growth throughout the 1980’s, which showed a transformation from the initial Banshee-like goth phase to its full wingspan of florid, multi-textured soundscapes. All of this, of course, centers on Fraser’s ever-enchanting vocal style, which sounds like a random accessing of syllables and phrases. Her “lyrics” are based on the sounds of the words rather than the meanings, and, sometimes, she simply utters nonsense in lieu of pinning herself down to a particular word. The result may look like gibberish on paper, but it sounds like nothing of the sort.
Detractors of the band focus on its lack of compositional direction, citing the heavy use of electronic rhythms, but the Cocteau Twins’ music is engaging not for its ebb and flow but for its precarious balance of tension and splendor. This BBC Sessions also includes some rarities like an old Saturday Night Live appearance from late 1983 and a previously unreleased cover of “Strange Fruit” made famous by Billie Holiday. The end of the second disc gives a brief glimpse of some of the band’s far-underrated work from 1996, which sadly may be the last new material we ever get from the Cocteau Twins as the band has officially announced an open-ended hiatus. Despite the fact that this collection of BBC Sessions skips a huge portion of the band’s career (from 1985-1995), it still represents what the Cocteau Twins set out to do, which was to make gloriously florid and hauntingly beautiful music within the confines of pop structure, and it should prevent the band from ever falling into obscurity.