COCTEAU TWINS
BBC Sessions (Ryko)
***

I've never considered myself a true music collector. I'll buy every LP a band puts out, but you won't catch me at Borders tracking imports, or special-ordering a box set for the extra bonus tracks. I don't buy live albums, I go to see bands. The first time I heard one of the Smiths' Peel Sessions I realized that I hated Morrissey's nasty voice, and decided I would never allow myself to be suckered by that sort of shameless marketing strategy again.

The new Cocteau Twins release, BBC Sessions, has given me perspective. I expected the worst. Cocteau Twins aren't a band I want to hear stripped down or less-produced. They're a great big, dramatic, reverberating wall of sound, and one would expect that, paired down, the hypergorgeous music of Cocteau Twins would end up sounding like something small -- something more like, say, the Sundays.

And in some spots on this two-disc set, they do sound diminished. "Ivo," is one of my favorite songs from their Treasure LP. But on BBC Sessions, "Ivo" sounds dull, muted in comparison. A collector would tell me that's the point -- that someone who seeks to understand Cocteau Twins would want to hear the song in a cruder, more elemental state.

But that's just stupid. What's great about hearing Cocteau Twins in their BBC sessions on the rest of the collection is that the musical accompaniment to Liz Fraser is muted. Sure, the drum machines sound tinny and ridiculous, but you can actually hear her singing words for once and not just melodies. And honestly, who listens to Cocteau Twins for those incredible drum sounds they've captured over the years? It's all Liz Fraser. On "Wax and Wane," that pigeon coo she often phrases with is so audible it's alarming.

The only real disappointment on this collection is their cover of Billie Holliday's "Strange Fruit," and I'm not going to go into that, except to say that this white, British art band didn't quite muster the raw emotion required to bring a song about lynching to its logical conclusion. Otherwise, Cocteau Twins' BBC Sessions is actually worthy of your hard-earned capital. -- JEFF DeROCHE


SKY CRIES MARY
Seeds (Collective Fruit)
**

This eagerly awaited EP is the first release of all-new music from Sky Cries Mary since 1997. The four songs don't detour much from SCM's previous oeuvre of ambient pop, although those good ol' fashioned hooks seem to be missing from most of these familiar trippy-hippie riffs. Seeds' three mediocre tracks would probably go unnoticed in a full-length release of otherwise impressive songs. But when a four-song EP is 75 percent duds, one wonders why the band bothered.

The opener, "Remember Me the Wind," doesn't waste any time getting to what we want: Anisa Romero's heavenly voice. There isn't a whole lot else going for this rather forgettable song, though. SCM frontman Roderick has an annoying tendency to spoil an otherwise decent song with overly repetitive backing vocals, as is the case here. In "Chickaboom Cocktail," on the other hand, his voice fits smoothly into the catchy, drum-heavy tune, as do the samples of a heavily accented female voice detailing the ingredients of a tropical drink. "Sonho" is a dull song which appears to be nothing more than filler. "Cloud Splitter" welcomes us back to the warm, familiar SCM territory of druggy, dreamy melodies, complete with drug references in its sampled vocals, though the music is, again, not particularly inspired. Ironically, the most captivating Seeds song is a cover, and it's not even on the CD. At SCM's website (www.skycriesmary.com), you can download an MP3 file of SCM covering the Mamas & the Papas' "California Dreamin'." The slow, soft vocals in the beginning break out into full-fleshed harmonizing, complementing a snappy drum beat and interesting synth effects. The fact that you must have access to MP3 technology to even hear this song begs the question of why it wasn't included on the CD. It seems rather elitist for a band with its own label to insist that their fans have the latest computer systems and software to hear their music.

Seeds is an interactive CD (CD-I), with a digital video of "Chickaboom Cocktail." For those who have the necessary QuickTime software, this is a mildly amusing video, with vague tropical imagery, happy dog scenes, and a minimum of hippie dancing. For the rest of us, this poorly edited video is hardly worth the lengths we have to go in order to view it. After a sympathetic Stranger techie let me watch the film on his computer, I ended up just wishing that Sky Cries Mary had spent more time recording music, instead of wasting their time on crappy visuals that few can watch. SCM have always been known for their live shows with great visual effects, but I say it's time for them to get back in that damn studio and record some more music. MELODY MOSS


IN STORES 11/9

FIONA APPLE, When the Pawn... (Clean Slate/Epic). There ain't a slate big enough to contain the entire 90-word title.

THE ARTIST FORMERLY KNOWN AS PRINCE, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (Arista). Don't call him Prince, unless he's producing, in which case he's Prince. Featured guests for the Artist who Prince produced include Sheryl Crow, Gwen Stefani, Ani DiFranco, Chuck D, and Maceo Parker.

THE DOORS, The Complete Studio Recordings and Essential Rarities (Elektra). A seven-disc box set including the band's six studio albums and a disc of rarities with a previously unreleased song.

MONTEL JORDAN, Get It On... Tonight (Def Soul/Def Jam). Or tomorrow, whenever.

NATALIE MERCHANT, Live in Concert (Elektra). Merchant bludgeons us with daisies and barefoot-earth-mother platitudes incessantly on VH1. And I'm sure anyone who goes to see her in concert has so little else to live for that a live disc is cause enough to slather on some more patchouli.

MIKE NESS, Under the Influences (Time Bomb). The Social Distortion frontman covers songs from Johnny Cash, George Jones, Carl Perkins, Hank Williams, and Buck Owens. I'll never understand why singers who have been influenced by peerless artists feel the need to record and sell themselves by ostensibly improving on classic, well-loved songs. The occasional cover is one thing, an entire album makes a completely different statement.

SAVAGE GARDEN, Affirmation (Columbia). Australian duo that did "Chicka-Cherry-Cola" and has Kristen Dunst in their new video, which everybody's doing these days.

TOAD THE WET SPROCKET, P.S. A Toad Retrospective (Columbia). Gone but not finished shilling tunes, Toad members have chosen their favorite Toad songs for their favorite Toad fans.

TONIC, Sugar (Universal). Self-produced album featuring the single "You Wanted More" off the American Pie soundtrack.

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