These days, it is fairly routine for pop groups to declare their sound unique and uncategorizable. It might look good in print, but it generally does little to disguise the fact that this "unique" music sounds like virtually everything else on the radio today.
Once in a while, though, a band comes along offering music so utterly one-of-a-kind as to almost defy description. A band, in short, like the Cocteau Twins.
Emerging in the early '80s, this British trio -- Scots Robin Guthrie and Elizabeth Fraser, plus Englishman Simon Raymonde -- managed to confound even the heard-it-all English music press, who sought in vain for an appropriate pigeonhole. Some listeners heard intimations of the exotic in their songs, others found echoes of the baroque. There were even those who talked of hip-hop and new age jazz.
Critics struggled to do justice to the shimmering, evanescent beauty of Cocteau recordings like "Blue Bell Knoll" or the recent "Heaven or Las Vegas." "The Cocteaus are to pop music what the Impressionists were to painting," wrote one. "When you die, and then open your eyes, if there isn't music like this playing in the distance," insisted another, "you're probably on your way to the wrong place."
How could the same music provoke such divergent interpretations? Because, Guthrie explains in a phone interview from New York, the Cocteau Twins' sound is meant to be non-specific and suggestive. "Our music is more open to personal interpretation by different people," he says. "You have to put something into it, but then you can take a lot more out of it. With a James Brown record, there's only one way you can TC take it. But with us, there's no certain way to interpret any song.
"I might think I have more of an idea of what some of them are about," he adds, "but it's only my idea. Because Liz has written the words to the songs, and my head is not inside her head, you know?"
Being Elizabeth Fraser's husband, Guthrie ought to know. But if getting inside her head is hard, unraveling her lyrics isn't much easier. Fraser is the one responsible for such titles as "Ella Megablast Burls Forever," "Iceblink Luck," "When Mama Was Moth" and "Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires," and such impenetrable poetry leaves some listeners suspecting that her words are chosen more for their sound than their meaning.
Not so, Fraser insists. Her lyrics are "far more traditional than that," she says.
Why, then, does her singing seem so inscrutable? "It's mostly to do with diction, I think," she laughs. "A lot of the way it comes out has to do not so much with what I'm singing, but how I'm singing it. I suspect a singing teacher would have a fit with my diction. They'd probably think I was doing a very bad job."
Maybe so, but the Cocteau Twins have never worried much about playing by the rules. Certainly not when it comes to making music; the trio's unconventional approach, as Raymonde explains, is what leads to such delightful sonic surprises.
"A lot of the songs actually come from the sound of the instruments," says Raymonde. "I mean, if you just plug a guitar into an amplifier, it sounds, essentially, quite boring. You find yourself just playing rock riffs, because that's the history of that sound.
"But if you put [the guitar] through some peculiar electronic effect, you create something you haven't heard before. And that inspires you to play certain notes.
"People do think, for some reason, that we're quite musical," he adds, obviously amused by the notion. "But I think I'm probably unmusical. I haven't really got a clue."
What defines the band's identity, then, isn't musical ability, but a shared sensibility. As Guthrie puts it, "The only way we can put our music together is by taste. We do things that sound good to us."
There is a downside to the band's free-wheeling instrumental approach, though. Because all of the Cocteau Twins' music is created in the recording studio, re-creating it onstage takes some effort. Thus, before the band began gearing up for its current tour, Raymonde and Guthrie had to try to remember what exactly it was they played on those records.
"When you record it, you may only do it once -- and that's the only time you've ever done it," says Raymonde. "You just never have a go at it again for a few years, until you're suddenly faced with having to do it live. Then it's, 'How did I come up with that?'
"It's a challenge, figuring out what you were doing, and the sudden realization that you've got it right -- or nearly right -- is quite fun."
So far, such efforts are paying off. A short American tour last fall sold out in record time, and interest in the band has increased to the point that Capitol Records (the band's American label) is planning to release the Cocteaus' complete British back catalog later this year.
Even so, it's doubtful any amount of success will change the Cocteau Twins. "We're always very selfish in anything that we do musically," says Raymonde, "because that's the way we like to do it. We don't really like to listen to advice from other quarters."
He laughs, and adds, "Basically, we're bloody-minded."
When: April 1, 8 p.m.
Where: Towson Center, Towson State University (Painters Mill tickets will be honored).