Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: Cocteau Twins – Blue Bell Knoll

on April 27, 2013, 12:01am

When one thinks of the “4AD Sound”, especially in considering the label’s classic period throughout the ’80s that would factor heavily into what is now called “dream pop”, “ethereal” often comes to mind (with “gossamer” a close second). The elegant arrangements of heavily reverbed guitars run through a series of effects, atmospheric keyboards and voices used as instruments rather than just a means to convey words can all be easily summarized by that one word. It’s no coincidence that the description of the 4AD Sound also describes one of the label’s premiere acts, the Cocteau Twins.

The Twins’ development of the ethereal dream pop that became a cornerstone of the label’s sound began when bass player Simon Raymonde replaced Will Heggie. In fact, more often than not, a discussion about the ethereal 4AD Sound is really a discussion of this Cocteau Twins’ line-up’s early work, in particular, Treasure and the group’s contributions to label founder Ivo Watts-Russell’s side project, This Mortal Coil (a project that in time helped to define a new ’80s psychedelia, but also sowed the seeds that would eventually lead to the Cocteau Twins’ departure from 4AD). Raymonde, along with vocalist Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie on guitar and drum machine, would be the band for the remainder of the group’s career with the exception of Treasure’s follow-up Victorialand, which saw Raymonde pulled away to work on This Mortal Coil’s second release, Filigree & Shadow, and The Moon and the Melodies which featured the three, though not credited as Cocteau Twins, teaming with ambient composer Harold Budd.

The band’s popularity began to increase in the United States through heavy airplay on college radio. However, despite the band’s increased profile, 4AD had little American distribution at the time. As a result, most of the label’s roster (with minor exceptions like the Pixies) was only available by importing the albums, thereby raising the cost of a single compact disc upwards of $20-25 (and over $40-50 in 2010)! The first steps to alleviate this with regard to the Cocteau Twins came by way of an agreement with Relativity Records. The Cocteau Twins’ first official domestic US release was 1986’s The Pink Opaque, an album compiling previously released material to act as a sampler of the Twins’ output recorded between 1982 and 1985. Relativity also provided distribution for 1986’s four-track EP, Love’s Easy Tears, the band’s first set of new material for the US market.

The band’s first full studio album to be released in America was also their first major label release. In October 1988, after signing a distribution deal with Capitol Records, the Cocteau Twins released Blue Bell Knoll. Though still attached to 4AD, the Capitol deal allowed for far better distribution of the new album (the older material still remained imported until the mid ’90s) as well as the double advantage of lowering the price of the album by almost half the cost of imported albums.

Although an album of new material, Blue Bell Knoll encapsulated the sound and style of the Twins’ previous nine years in a manner akin to The Pink Opaque sampler. Guthrie and Raymonde continue to provide the shimmering atmospheric backdrop to Fraser’s otherworldly vocalizations but in a tad bit more accessible manner. Perhaps because so much of this album’s sound is rooted in the band’s history, Blue Bell Knoll received a rather mixed reception. Some felt the album represented a stagnation that began with Love’s Easy Tears, with one reviewer calling it the band’s “least noteworthy release since Garlands [1982]” and “pedestrian”; whereas others, such as Australian music critic Victoria Thieberger, praised Blue Bell Knoll as “everything atmospheric music should be and usually isn’t.”

The opening title track, based on an old legend that death is upon those who can hear the sound of the bluebell’s knoll, sets a slightly dark mood under a rainfall of harpsichord. Coupled with Fraser’s voice and little else for nearly two minutes, the song carries with it the weight of a warning to those on the moors before it opens up into a less ethereal and more visceral closing arc. The momentum that “Blue Bell Knoll” picks up as the song ends would have been better served had the album’s sequence allowed for the album’s initial single, “Carolyn’s Fingers” to immediately follow, continuing the harpsichord provided theme; however, with the placement of “Athol-Brose” in between these two tracks, a song whose title is taken from an alcohol-laden Scottish porridge, that momentum is quickly stifled.

Perhaps the Cocteau Twins’ first serious widespread recognition in the US, “Carolyn’s Fingers” is a pop song that many fans feel the band never topped and also points toward the sounds that would be heard on Blue Bell Knoll’s follow-ups, 1990s releases like HeaHeaHeaven or Las Vegas. Pop sensibilities also appear on the heavenly “Cico Buff” and the serenely blissful “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat”, two songs, that if actually released, may have elevated the band’s profile even higher.

Even though the meat of the Cocteau Twins’ sound is provided by Guthrie and Raymonde, the most notable feature of the band is Elizabeth Fraser’s distinctive voice and style of singing, always used as an instrument and less a lyrical outlet. Heard throughout the album, Fraser’s voice is often played against itself, creating harmonies and backup vocals, adding a lush density to the other bandmates’ instrumentations.

The vocal arrangements on Blue Bell Knoll allow Fraser’s vocal acrobatics to shine rather than simply hover in mystery, buried under a shroud of dense sound. Many of Fraser’s lyrics, she once explained, were simply words taken from foreign language dictionaries simply because she liked their sound. Barely decipherable most times, Fraser’s singing on Blue Bell Knoll actually features understandable lyrics at points, such as “Protect this small angel” on “For Phoebe, Still a Baby”, a song written while Frasier was pregnant with her first child (and a song that hints at the band’s most accessible album, 1993’s Four Calendar Cafe). Although many often try to attach a misguided comparison to Kate Bush, aside from hitting those high notes in similar halcyonic fashion, Fraser’s voice is unique, especially in the world of rock, existing fluidly between total lyrical comprehensibility and near-glossolalia.

Blue Bell Knoll represents a turning point for the band, featuring a progressively more coherent vocalist and slightly more accessible overall sound. And although it may not necessarily reach the same level as critic and fan favorite Treasure (ironically, an album the band dislikes), after a series of acoustic endeavors, Blue Bell Knoll, with its rich and ambitious expressiveness, returns the band to its dream pop roots in the ether.

Essential Tracks: “Carolyn’s Fingers”, “Cico Buff”

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