Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cocteau Twins- Echoes In A Shallow Bay

For all the power and emotionally affective qualities that instrumental music can have, I still think the human voice is the most beguiling and spellbinding instrument. This is something that is underscored for me whenever I listen to bands who sing in other languages, or even bands that make use of wordless vocals. Sigur Ros comes immediately to mind. The Icelandic band primarily sing in a made up language that nevertheless proves to be capable of making a listener feel certain things with only an implicit, personal understanding of what the song “means.” A more esoteric example is Panda Bear's Young Prayer album, which is made up almost entirely of his wordless vocals and acoustic guitars. Even without knowing that it was recorded in the wake of his father's death, it still gets across an elegiac, mournful quality despite having no intelligible English lyrics about funerals and loss.

I bought Echoes In A Shallow Bay on a whim through my job, because I recalled once downloading some albums by the Cocteau Twins but never giving them a fair shake before being distracted by other things. The first time I listened to this EP I accidentally had the volume up way too loud, and something about Liz Fraser's vocals on the lead track 'Great Spangled Fritillary' instantly captivated me. I was pretty sure she was singing in another language, and her simultaneously atmospheric and intense “ohhh ahh” backing vocals immediately brought to mind both Sigur Ros and Young Prayer, as well as a lot of the bands the Cocteau Twins influenced. Shades of their music show up in recent favorites of mine like Beach House's Teen Dream and Grouper's Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill.

Echoes and its companion EP, Tiny Dynamine, were (according to Wikipedia) not originally recorded with the intent of release, since the band were merely testing out a new recording studio. Without the context of Tiny Dynamine, not to mention the rest of their body of work, I can't speak authoritatively on the relative quality of these four tracks. But coming from my perspective, if this is the kind of music they record without a release in mind, it makes me eager to track down their better known albums, since Echoes is great. Fraser's indecipherable lyrics, the mysterious artwork, and the dreamy soup of guitars, keyboards, and bass give this music a mysterious, otherworldly feel. 'Eggs and Their Shells' in particular is just out of reach, as if you're drunk and can't quite concentrate hard enough to figure out what she's singing, or even whether you're awake or not.

While the sheer totality of sound is what makes this band so unique and compelling, it's obvious to anyone that without Fraser's vocals they'd be just another pretty good 80s “college rock” band with an atmospheric/gothic vibe. Based solely on 'Melonella', the Cocteau Twins sound as if they have two or three different vocalists, so varied and, yes, beguiling and spellbinding are her performances. While likely not the band's best work, Echoes has proven to be an engrossing and enjoyable EP, and I find it difficult to not just keep flipping the record over and listening to its four songs again and again.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you're into Cocteau Twins, check out Treasure and Garlands. Even though Garlands just got two friggin stars at AMG, it's one of those cds that I kind of grew up with, and there are definitely songs that have that ethereal vocal thing you're talking about (Wax and Wane).

There's also the wonderful "Teardrop" with Massive attack and Elizabeth Fraser.