Somehow, the Raincoats’ old records have gotten better since they were made. After Kurt Cobain repeatedly cited the neglected English post-punk band as an inspiration (and other bands, from Sonic Youth to the Voodoo Queens, chimed in), his band’s record label reissued the London quartet’s three studio albums with nice liner notes. The vinyl-only Fairytales samples all three albums, though rather unevenly: eight songs from the first, three from the second, two from the third.
The Raincoats introduced four English women parked on the fringes of conventional pop music. Or were they just an avant-garde Roches? The harmonies are there and the lyrics are esoteric and philosophical, eschewing predictable sentiments, but the music comes together only in spurts. A cover of the Kinks’ “Lola” plays havoc with the song’s gender enigma. The rest of the material just plays havoc.
On Odyshape, the band expanded the scope of its sound: the mingling of snappy acoustic and jangly electric guitars provides saner contrast to the violin shrieks. There’s even a poignant song about a girl who’s “Only Loved at Night.” But the Raincoats are still no easy listen.
The Kitchen Tapes (released initially on cassette, later on CD) captures a December 1982 New York show, at which the Raincoats are supported by three demi-monde musicians. The playing, while still a bit low on the virtuosity index, shows refinement and development. In spots, the Raincoats spin a shimmery curtain of lovely sound; elsewhere, pan-cultural percussion supports fascinating vocal arrangements. But their potential for cacophony (better organized than before, but boisterous nonetheless) will keep you alternately straining to hear and jamming your fingers in your ears. Moving reprises some of the live material; the four-song Animal Rhapsody in turn reprises two studio tracks from it.
Invited to open for Nirvana on their 1994 tour, the decade-gone Raincoats reformed, with original members Gina Birch (bass/vocals) and Ana da Silva (guitar/vocals) joined by new violinist Anne Wood and guest drummer Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth. Cobain’s suicide ended those plans, but the band went on a triumphant American tour anyway, playing a lot of classics, a few new originals and a cover of Alternative TV’s “Love Lies Limp.” A John Peel session from April 1994 (two new songs, “No One’s Little Girl” from Moving and “Shouting Out Loud” from Odyshape) was released on Shelley’s label as Extended Play.
On Looking in the Shadows, the first new Raincoats album in a dozen years, Birch, da Silva, Wood and American drummer Heather Dunn (ex-Tiger Trap, Lois) present a hair-raising variety of stylistic approaches. The first half favors calm, cute, occasionally craggy pop that thaws out a vintage new wave sound: “Only Tonight” and “Forgotten Words” resemble the deadpan neo-cool of Angel Corpus Christi, while the disconcerting “Babydog” (a droll fantasy alternative to fertility), the willfully insipid “Pretty” and the noisy avant-continental “Don’t Be Mean” (unveiled on the EP) take slipperier turns through the band’s past. The second half has a tougher, less alluring punk edge and fewer instances of coquetry. The slickness — credit years of experience, maturity, the reunion’s recharge and producer Ed Buller, known for his work with Pulp and Suede — draws a clear line between the Raincoats then and now. While longtime fans may perceive it as an abandonment of ideals, this bewitching record stands proud against the sounds of today.