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Cocteau Twins: Stars and Topsail (4AD)

This 'best of' album is completely, hopelessly, irreparably inadequate. Not through any fault in the music contained on the CD: in particular the 10 track run from Lorelei to Carolyn's Fingers midway through the album reaches stellar peaks any other band (Sisters included) couldn't even dream of. No, where it fails is in concept. What is the point in a précis of the glorious music the Cocteau Twins made for 4AD? What kind of sad individual doesn't own already all of these tracks, and can't find the time to play all 8 albums and 14 EPs in full, back to back? Moreover the packaging lacks the required gravitas for a release of this importance: Alan Warner's sleeve notes are fatuous (God alone knows what his novels are like), and even Vaughan Oliver's artwork, severely limited by CD format, lacks the panache of previous Cocteau releases.

There are inevitable quibbles about missing favourites. The blistering All But an Ark Lark from the early Lullabies EP has gone astray. No Musette and Drums, with its incendiary closing guitar noise, off 1983's breakthrough Head Over Heels LP. (A more comprehensive exploration of the early Cocteau sound can be found on last year's superlative BBC sessions CD.) Liz Fraser's two fabulous tracks (Song to the Siren, Another Day) from the first This Mortal Coil album are not here (and completists would want to include Fraser's guest appearance on Felt's mighty Primitive Painters). Insanely The Spangle Maker is missing, and what the hell has happened to Donimo from Treasure - the finest album in existence? The absence of everything from the Love's Easy Tears EP is bordering on the criminal. And one is rendered speechless that Suckling the Mender and A Kissed Out Red Floatboat from Blue Bell Knoll didn't make the cut. Little Spacey! Where is Little Spacey?

And so on. But what of the tracks that are here? Lorelei is innocence, Aikea-Guinea bliss. Pink Orange Red melancholy and Carolyn's Fingers ecstasy. (Alternatively you could say Spring, Winter, Autumn and Summer respectively.) Their rate of ascent after their Garlands debut before plateauing out with Treasure is unmatched. Pearly Dewdrops' Drops and Iceblink Luck were, pointlessly, Top 30 hit singles and Liz refused to go on Top of the Pops. For a time in 1985 Aikea-Guinea was No. 41 for three consecutive weeks, prompting the youthful Sampson to deliberate noisily on conspiracy theories in the 6th form common room. In 1993 I finally saw them live and from the front row you could almost reach out and grasp Liz's vocals in your hand.

The Cocteaus' music is notoriously difficult to describe. Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde created beautiful, melodic scores over which Liz Fraser, blessed with a heavenly voice, sang in tongues. Fraser's efforts are perhaps undervalued - it's easy to assume that all she had to do was to open her mouth and the songs came out, especially as the contemporary paradigm was in favour of beauty-by-accident. (At least there was some kind of aesthetic theory back then - heaven knows what kind of theory could be constructed around the current crop of leading bands.)

But Liz pushed the envelope for female vocals in pop. The Blue Bell Knoll tracks in particular simply exude ambition. The sheer weight of ideas expended on a single backing track can be breathtaking (listen to the counterpoint harmonies on Donimo), and the combined effect when three or four vocal such melodies are combined is staggering. At the time only Kate Bush was exploring similar territories, and one would have to venture as far afield as Maria Callas or Bulgarian folk for other reference points. And when the Twins finally began to decline after their ill-advised transfer to Fontana (the objective of boosting US sales was counter-productive and damaging), Liz's continued inspiration provided some late moments of glory, notably on Seekers Who Are Lovers, which proved a fitting last track to their last album. At times (Otterley, Victorialand) the music was delicate and gentle, othertimes (Aikea Guinea, Those Eyes That Mouth) it was a visceral, orgasmic thrill. Critics fruitlessly searched for meaning in this, but it defies analysis. Pure emotion made sound, the Cocteau Twins were unique. We are poorer in their absence but richer for having grown with them.


Picture: Liz Fraser, tentatively dated at late 1983. Taken from the Cocteau Twins' official site.
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