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LIVE REPORT: Elizabeth Fraser
Chris Roberts , August 9th, 2012 18:35

As part of Antony's Meltdown, Cocteau Twins vocalist Elizabeth Fraser was coaxed out of semi-retirement to play her first shows since leaving the group in 1998. Chris Roberts was there, and found glimmers of something new and intriguing in her performance

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50 Words For Snow was a deeply disappointing Kate Bush album, but many people wrongly said it was fantastic because they rightly love Kate Bush. I'm reminded of that tonight. The atmosphere at Elizabeth Fraser's first ever solo shows is hushed and reverential, bar the two or three sad sacks who find it hilarious to shout out "I love you Liz!" or "Marry me!" between songs. Afterwards, everyone is buzzing about how transcendental and sublime the evening's music was. It was pleasant, a comeback work in progress, but the wishful stampede to hail her every note as the nectar of the gods does nobody any favours.

Since the demise of the Cocteau Twins in '97, Fraser has largely lain low, emerging only to lend contributions to Massive Attack and for a couple of low-profile singles. The Cocteaus' music seems not just from another era but from another galaxy now: in an age when the flatulent foghorn-ing of Florence Welch is portrayed and perceived as the arty antidote to club-pop, their keening swoops would surely see them pushed to the margins rather than embraced as music-press darlings. Coaxed to play live at Meltdown by Antony Hegarty, Fraser has in her service a decent, functional band, among them former Spiritualized keyboardist Thighpaulsandra, his look disconcertingly drawn from repeated viewings of Flash Gordon. The singer herself has come dressed as a Christmas cracker. The musicians are solid but tentative: everyone, including Fraser, is too quiet. The music cannot envelop us at this level; we cannot drown in it, we cannot swoon.

That said, it is sweet, elegant. The set is a mix of old Cocteaus songs re-drawn as tidy, conventional ballads ('Donimo', 'Pearly-Dewdrops' Drops'), and quite strong new material, which bleeds between trip-hop and Enya, but is better than that sounds. Two backing singers take up the slack that used to be full of multiple sparkles but is now proficient. For one song, the band leave the stage and ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett guests, playing neo-flamenco on acoustic guitar, sidelong to her still-enigmatic utterances.

It's a tipping point: this music is very, very prog, which is high praise from me. Most will deny that, but the slow-burn intros, occasional bursts of wilful crackle, and studiedly impactful entrance of drums all add to the striving for drama, serenity and pomp, and for grandeur (which isn't quite there tonight, but may arrive the more this group plays). Perhaps heyday 4AD (at least before Pixies and Throwing Muses came along) was prog for people scared to admit they like prog. Heck, I've babbled worse theories.

Fitting then that the encore of 'Song To The Siren' (Tim Buckley's elegy as re-imagined by Fraser's vocal for This Mortal Coil) ends tonight on an almost-epic high, even if it is, like most of the concert, relatively understated. Despite the subdued nature of the show, the audience – as they say – erupts, and bouquets are brought forth. Not a lot was done wrong here. It's a competent and tasteful first step on the road to return for one of the great voices of another time. But let's not pretend it was fabulous just because we wanted it to be. It's more appropriate to give her the considered artistic respect she deserves than to blow smoke up her dress and make out it was an all-conquering, tear-inducing triumph. That may yet come. Save some gas.

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Aug 9, 2012 11:30am

I'd say 25 Words was pretty good - you're right about the rest. Never got Ms Cocteau though....

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Andy Parsons
Aug 9, 2012 11:54am

I was lucky enough to see her in Bath at the weekend. Most of Liz's vocals were too quiet there. However when things clicked together (like the flamenco section) it was sublime. I agree that it's a bit early to be celebrating as a second coming, but having never had the opportunity to see the Twins or Liz perform live before, it was still very special.

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Sanjit Chudha
Aug 9, 2012 11:59am

A measured and accurate commentary on Elizabeth Fraser's recent show, thanks.

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Luke McAdams
Aug 9, 2012 2:27pm

In reply to Sanjit Chudha:

The most honest review I've read so far on this gig. Like many, my main disappointment on the night was with the dreadful sound quality on the night, rather than Liz's performance - seemed the sound engineers were the ones coming back from a 14yr break. As prog rock goes, this wasn't the worst attempt, and I really hope there's more new material to come, for if nothing else we'll surely get something original.

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Adam Bartlett
Aug 9, 2012 3:53pm

Liz likes the love shout outs, they're not sad at all. On the first night, she shouted back "We love you!" after coming back on for the first encore. This sort of breath takingly beautiful music doesnt need to be overwhelming loud. Its a perfectly sensitive caress not a bear hug.

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Christopher Rye
Aug 9, 2012 6:28pm

I was at the second night of Liz's two Meltdown appearances. All the criticism of the sound engineer is badly misplaced (see below for why). The fact is, as she herself acknowledged in a recent interview, her voice has changed a great deal with age. Unusually, however, this has meant that while she has lost her full-throated 'Edith Piaf from space' voice (my words) she has retained her high (sometimes falsetto) voice, which, if anything, has become purer and more lovely.

So what you didn't mention is the fact that she sang the entire concert – bar a couple of lines in one song – in her high voice. So she is simply unable to belt out tracks like Pearly Dewdrops Drops and Donimo as she used to and recreate the exultant sound of the Cocteaus' classic recordings, such as Treasure, Bluebell Knoll and the many EPs.

She has been forced to reinterpret those songs and take the vocal approach that she is able to today, and she has done an excellent job of it. I would have been quite happy just hearing the new material, but clearly she wanted to repay the fans' support with some classics.

So, actually, the sound engineer did a very good job of retaining some power in the drums and bass while stripping away frequencies from the guitars and keyboards to give her still beautiful high voice the space it needed to soar. Had he simply turned up the guitars and also allowed them to occupy the kind of chiming, ringing tones that Robin Guthrie's guitar used to add to the Cocteaus' material, it would have swamped her voice. The same with the keys. He had audibly stripped away the high frequencies from the snare and cymbals too... all to give her voice some space in the mix. Any sound engineer or producer will tell you this.

There are only so many audio frequencies available, and some of them are shared between voice, guitar, keyboards and drums. Mixing is not just an additive process, it is a subtractive one too. Simply adding 'more' to the mix would have swamped her voice with competing frequencies and everyone would have complained that the band were too loud.

I went to hear Elizabeth Fraser sing, and I did just that – thanks to the sound engineer in part. Loudness is everywhere. And so I found the quietness and purity of the gig entrancing and beautiful... it made people listen to something genuinely fragile. The new material was, for me, by far the strongest of the night, because it has been written around her voice today.

The Cocteaus in their prime were often Motorhead loud, after all, and reviews of some of their shows were often characterised by 'poor sound' allegations. The fact is, the chiming power and high/mid frequencies of the guitars often swamped her voice, even in their heyday when she could belt it out.

BTW, anyone familiar with these things would have spotted that Thighpaulsandra was actually dressed as Oberon from Max Reinhardt's 1930s film of a Midsummer Night's Dream.

Also BTW, Kate Bush's 50 Words for Snow is one of my favourite Bush albums... 'Among Angels', in particular, is gorgeous. As a longstanding fan, I think it's a much better album than either the Red Shoes or The Sensual World. It's a slowburn of an album... far from immediate, but rich and rewarding. Again, something that makes you listen and envelops you, rather than simply ramps up the volume and goes for power over subtlety.

You're the Quietus. Please don't start turning into the Loud-us. OK?

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Aug 9, 2012 7:09pm

This sounds intriguing. Having read all of the commentary, it looks like Christopher Rye has the strongest handle on what went down. Having seen The Cocteau Twins on several occasions, I look forward to Ms. Fraser making more music in public again. She was a transcendental vocalist and meant a lot to me in their heyday. She was certainly one of the most abstract and emotive singers I'd ever had the pleasure of hearing.

As for Kate Bush, "The Sensual World" and "The Red Shoes" were so poor, that I feel she's missed her sell-by date a good 25 years ago. And Mr. Roberts - Spot on with the prog references vis-a-vis 4AD. At least until The Pixies ruined everything, 4AD's prog roots definitely showed! Wow. Liz Fraser and Steve Hackett. I'd have loved to have heard that.
For more ruminations on the Fresh New Sound Of Yesterday…

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Aug 9, 2012 11:01pm

In reply to Christopher Rye:

Thank God, somebody else who understands these things. I wish people like you did reviews!

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Adam Bartlett
Aug 10, 2012 9:11am

In reply to Christopher Rye:

Thanks so much for that comment Chris. Its like you put into words what I felt but didnt have the knowledge to describe. You should write her biography!

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Christopher Rye
Aug 10, 2012 9:49am

In reply to Adam Bartlett:

Now THERE's an idea. :-)

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Blue Koyote
Aug 10, 2012 9:47pm

Your review is spot-on for me. I was hoping it was going to be an earth-shattering gig, and for me it wasn't, but then I go to 80-90 shows a year, so that's difficult. But it was really good and I'm delighted I finally got to hear her sing again for the first time in 16 years. Now for that solo album please...

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Susan Frond
Aug 11, 2012 1:29pm

The reference to Kate Bush is completely pointless. You have your opinion and it is not definitive and certainly irrelevant to this review. People are not 'wrong' for having a different perspective.

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Mar 5, 2013 9:48pm

Thighpaulsandra - yay!

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Dec 10, 2014 12:03am

There will never bit anymore, Cacophony; as I experienced, at the Calendar cafe show in San Francisco! Giant Beachball bouncing, Liz Flippin out her voice, not Unlike a Disturbed Wolf at the breast, dressed, in a plaid; She must've had a Break~through, that gig, met Simon, who said, Hey We've been lucky, We had a good run! And After Milky kissoff, that was it! Loved the parallel; Lynch worlds she created, it be nice to have the Ill Fated Solo though?

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