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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

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.