Music Features

Overlooked Albums #42: Cocteau Twins - Blue Bell Knoll

Pop eats itself. Chart success demands the repetition of formulas until the last vestige of originality is exhausted. In the current state of music, things have been flatlining for a while. At this moment, our top pop divas are doing their darnedest to avoid obsolescence, trusting publicity stunts over musical chops. Most indie groups don't have the tools to compete in this climate. The system is rigged against them. Yet musical innovation finds fertile ground among the outcasts, and every once in a while new paradigms replace worn-out models, sparking a sense of common endeavor. Take the case of the Cocteau Twins, pioneers of dream pop, whose first albums saw modest success at best. When their style of music finally caught on, they had myriad groups following in their wake. It goes to show that the future often walks in uninvited.

There are precedents for dream pop. You find traces of it in the otherworldly echo-laden guitars of Santo and Johnny (Sleepwalk), the haunting vocals of Patsy Cline (Sweet Dreams), and the multilayered constructions of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. Yet the point of inflection for dream pop came with punk, which allowed bands to experiment through trial and error despite their musical limitations. Suddenly, new bands were shunning the slick multitracked studio sound that ruled AOR throughout the seventies. Young Turks now questioned the fixed ways of doing things, dodging their way in for a spot behind the recording console. This was fertile ground for the Cocteau Twins, who from the start had control of their studio sound. Theirs was a simple set up of guitar (Robin Guthrie), bass (original member Will Heggie), vocals (Elizabeth Fraser), and programmed drums; but the sound was big --a dynamic blend of echoey bottoms, reverberating midranges, and diaphanous highs.

The group never fell back on formula. Garlands (1982), their debut album, was a Gothic concoction, wild and eerie as the Brontës' moors. Blue Bell Knoll, recorded midway through their career, was a different beast altogether. By this point the group had turned some corners. Guthrie and Fraser had seen chart success with Song of the Siren, recorded for 4AD's This Mortal Coil project. During these sessions they worked with musician-producer Simon Raymonde, who joined the group in late 1983, giving Treasure (1984) his strong imprint, but the state of flux went on. While Raymonde worked on the second TMC album, Guthrie and Fraser recorded as a duo, exploring acoustic sounds and Arctic moods on Victorialand (1986). Later that year and with Raymonde on board, they navigated metaphysical soundscapes on The Moon and the Melodies, a collaboration with composer Harold Budd that began as a documentary soundtrack. All this broadened the musical palette, and the restless muse would lead them eventually to the next proper Cocteau Twins album.

If you try to find meaning in Blue Bell Knoll's song titles, you'll be at sea. A title like The Itchy Glowbo Blow, for instance, would suggest merry play across the land of the jabberwocky, but there's a disconnect between it and the music. Song lyrics won't help at all, either. Since the group's beginnings, their brush with colloquial English had been slight at best. At this point, Fraser was mixing words borrowed from other languages and experimenting with multicultural inflections. Obviously, the group worked hard to be obscure. This is, after all, the realm of the oneiric, and we thread there without signposts. With the burden of meaning left behind, imagination takes command. Detached from specific imagery, the listener will have an active role in finding an emotional connection. The band paves the way for him with strong melodies and tonal contrasts.

Though the band had no drummer, they relied on rhythm as the anchor for their songs, and this time around the salient influence was world music. The title song starts with speeded keyboards before launching into a Latin-like rhythm, Fraser's voice stretching over it with a middle-eastern phrasing. On Athol-brose, a jaunty Indian beat provides the vehicle for Guthrie's guitar wash, building an exhilarating crescendo. The slow-motion Spooning Good Singing Gum sways to a sensuous Latin bolero beat, suggesting a torrid-zone beachside affair. On A Kissed Out Red Floatboat, a transcendental mood of Tibetan heights is married to a trip-hop beat.

The album showcases Fraser's amazing vocal range. She had become a more confident singer since the first album, and she employs the high notes here like a seasoned virtuoso. Her brave coloratura on Carolyn's Fingers has the ornamentation of classical music without the histrionics. The double-tracking on For Phoebe Still A Baby is elaborate, her vocal lines distinct and vivid like a duet. To my ears, Fraser could tackle tough classical pieces and give aria divas like Sissel a run for their money.

Blue Bell Knoll marked a turning point in the band's career. A deal with Capitol Records would ensure a broader distribution in America and a growing number of fans. The momentum would make their next effort, Heaven or Las Vegas (1990), a breakthrough album there. Yet success came with a new set of challenges. A growing dissatisfaction with the record business and the dissolution of Fraser and Guthrie's relationship would put an end to the group in 1998.

One could argue that it was too early to call it quits, but there's no denying that the Twins didn't embarrass themselves by overstaying their welcome. If anything, they've left behind an outstanding catalog. Unlike so many eighties groups, the band's music doesn't age. It won't feel out of place in any current playlist, nor will be called out as dad rock. What is it about the music that transcends nostalgia? For one, the memories match the recorded tracks. The vibrations we felt then still resound, undimmed by the decades and affecting new listeners. Dreams, after all, exist outside of time.