From the mid-1980s through the early ‘90s, you couldn’t get more “alternative” than 4AD. The British record label, founded by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent, was a virtual haven for people who liked their clothes black and their mascara blacker. 4AD sported bands with arty names like Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins, and the Wolfgang Press. Designer Vaughan Oliver’s cryptic yet instantly recognizable sleeves looked like relics from a lost, underground civilization. Oh, yes—and then there was the music. Though each 4AD band was unique, they all shared similar arty, ethereal, evocative qualities. In America, most of these records were initially available only as European imports, lending them further mystique in an internet-free world.
Though Watts-Russell sold the label in the late ‘90s, it has continued to be a stamp of credibility for independent, self-serious artists. Would Bon Iver or St. Vincent have attained such caches of acclaim and buzz without 4AD? It’s a question worth asking.
If 4AD was the alternative label, then This Mortal Coil was the 4AD band. Literally. From 1983 to 1991, This Mortal Coil was a loose recording collective curated by Watts-Russell. He viewed the band as a means to release interpretations of some of his favorite songs, by artists mainly from the 4AD roster. Really, in terms of sound and vision, there has never been anything else quite like it.
This Mortal Coil released only three albums to go along with a few singles. A box set featuring all three albums was released in 1993. So…why another box set now, reprising those same three albums? Because everything is being remastered and reissued these days. Why not?
Also, and not insignificantly, there’s the fact much of this music retains a singular, timeless quality, despite the occasional thud of drum machines. There’s also the fact Watts-Russell’s taste in music has played a huge part in setting the template for whom artsy, alternative types view as their forbearers. Back in 1984, Tim Buckley, Big Star, and Roy Harper were not unknown. But neither were they the alt-icons they are now. When Watts-Russell commissioned covers of Buckley’s “Song to the Siren”, Big Star’s “Kangaroo” and “Holocaust”, and Harper’s “Another Day” for It’ll End In Tears, he surely had little idea he was anointing underground standards.
But that’s what these songs, and these performances, became. It’s easy to hear why, too. Singing in English rather than her usual style of eccentric vocalese, Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser has a beautiful, penetrating voice—almost disarmingly naked. Another eccentric British singer, Gordon Sharp, finds the yearning and awkwardness at the heart of “Kangaroo”. The arsenal of production and musical skills Watts-Russell had at his disposal is evident on “Fond Affections”, originally recorded by short-lived 4AD band Rema-Rema. A stark whip crack and haunting synthesizer samples provide all the backdrop Sharp’s delicately emotive voice needs. When he sings, “Let’s all sit down and cry”, it’s affecting rather than farcical. No small feat.
Taking an admittedly brilliant idea and running with it, Watts-Russell made the aptly-titled follow-up, 1986’s Filigree & Shadow, into a double album. This time, along with Buckley, songs by Gene Clark, Judy Collins, Van Morrison, and Talking Heads were among the featured covers. Fraser and Sharp were absent, which was potentially a big blow. Watts-Russell and co-producer John Fryer, though, found singers from outside the 4AD stable. Dominic Appleton lends the appropriate gravitas to Pearls Before Swine’s “The Jeweler”; Alison Limerick, sounding strangely like George Michael, gives a moving performance on Collins’ “My Father”. Keeping Watts-Russell’s vision intact, Filigree & Shadow is a little less “goth” than its predecessor but also a little less focused.
Watts-Russell must have realized even This Mortal Coil could have turned into too much of a good thing. Before its release in 1991, he announced Blood would be the outfit’s final album. Here, Syd Barrett, Big Star alumnus Chris Bell, and The Byrds are added to the canon. Though not without its harrowing moments, Blood has a decidedly more acoustic, folky feel. Most notable is an autumnal reading of Bell’s “You and Your Sister”, with vocals from Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly of Breeders/Pixies/Throwing Muses/Belly fame. Also, Deirdre Rutkowski hits home with the string-laden weeper “Carolyn’s Song”. Blood isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind on This Mortal Coil one way or the other, but it is a fittingly immaculate, affecting conclusion to the series.
Time has been kind to This Mortal Coil’s work. For example, generally overlooked in fawning reflections on the outfit’s work are the pretty but mostly superfluous instrumentals that fill a good part of Filigree & Shadow and Blood. The best of these are curious in the way of, say, certain Cure b-sides, but none are going to be the first thing anyone associates with This Mortal Coil. Furthermore, each album is rudely interrupted by at least one track that is done in the straightforward, flanged-out “goth rock” style of the time. Two of these happen to be covers of songs by Wire’s Colin Newman. Finally, if This Mortal Coil is the ultimate representation of 4AD, that means it is also the ultimate act of pretension. There’s precious little levity, and if any tongues were ever in cheeks, it didn’t show up on the records. Listen to all of this box set in one sitting, and at the end,you’re either going to feel incredibly enlightened, incredibly pathetic; or, most likely, both.
In addition to fancy packaging and clear yet often cold remastering, this “new” boxed set adds a fourth disc, Dust & Guitars. It includes nearly-identical single versions and some curiosities. The track that started it all, “Sixteen Days / Gathering Dust” from 1983, is here, and it is underwhelming. A previously-unreleased, Limerick-sung version of Neil Young’s “We Never Danced” is all that makes the disc more than a completist’s convenience. The 1993 box included a disc with original versions of many of the songs This Mortal Coil covered, and it’s a shame it is not included here.
Really, then, do you need to spend big money for the lavishly-packaged catalog of a collective that are frankly best-defined by the first half of their first album? Probably not. But if you are new to Watts-Russell’s fascinating, insular world, why not have a go?
// Notes from the Road
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