Saturday, March 30, 2019

A Single Wish: A Quick Review Of The 2018 Reissues Of The Three This Mortal Coil Albums From 4AD

I finally sat down and let myself sink into the 2018 reissues of the three This Mortal Coil albums from 4AD. The experience took me back to the very first days of my obsession with this label, started way back in 1986 when I got It'll End In Tears (1984) on cassette when it came out in America on Valentino Records. And listening to that one again now, then 1986's Filigree and Shadow and 1991's Blood all in a row really felt like an indulgent listening experience. And I think that's really what label-honcho Ivo Watts-Russell intended in the first place, when he dreamed up this collective.

Newly remastered by 4AD last year, these albums have never sounded better. And, despite what some reviewers have expressed in certain online forums, the remastered It'll End In Tears sounds just fantastic to me, with a listener practically dropping into the void along with Gordon Sharp of Cindytalk during that cover of "Kangaroo" from Big Star that opens the record, or feeling like you're being pulled into nothingness during those descending synth washes that anchor a stunning re-imagining of "Fond Affections" from Rema-Rema. Similarly, "Song To The Siren" still remains a transforming track, the sort of thing that retains the potential to change a listener's opinions about the power of pop music, while Liz Fraser's performance on Roy Harper's "Another Day" also sounds somehow shockingly clearer than before. The hodgepodge of players here -- members of Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Modern English, The Wolfgang Press, and so on -- make up the best of the 4AD label from its first peak era, and the choice of material was spot on, with even an original like "A Single Wish", the elegiac closer featuring Gordon Sharp of Cindytalk, feeling of a piece with the covers. It'll End In Tears still feels like a curated record, from a label that was, and is, expert at that sort of thing.

Filigree and Shadow from 1986 saw the This Mortal Coil collective expand its ranks, while Ivo Watts-Russell and team were casting a wider net in terms of mixing classic song covers and original compositions. The effect was seamless, with some of the originals on this album, namely "Tarantula" and "I Want To Live", easily sharing space next to stuff like Tim Buckley's "Morning Glory" and "My Father" by Judy Collins. Alison Limerick handles some of the memorable vocal performances here, but it's Dominic Appleton from Breathless who makes parts of Filigree and Shadow work so well. A nearly-claustrophobic cover of "Strength of Strings" from Gene Clark of The Byrds still astounds, with this newly-remastered version of Filigree and Shadow still the sort of album one can get lost in. I think that was likely the intent here, as whole stretches of this record -- think the first quarter that leads into "Tarantula", or the ending stretch that has a burning cover of "Drugs" from Talking Heads in it -- seem like albums unto themselves. If the whole record demands a listener's full attention for nearly an hour and twenty minutes, it seems a small price to pay for an experience that is absolutely fantastic on good headphones. The mix here on this 2018 remastered version is somehow richer, and more dramatic in spots, with the instrumentation and vocals sharing a kind of cosmic space that nearly haunts. If the first This Mortal Coil record built its reputation on the strength of the covers contained in its grooves, Filigree and Shadow earned its status as a masterpiece due to the totality of the album as a sonic experience.

Blood from 1991 remains a difficult record to love, despite some absolutely stunning tracks. It's a sort of mix of the approaches that fueled the first two This Mortal Coil releases, with the production serving a carefully-curated set of covers. While some -- including a run at "Mr. Somewhere" from The Apartments by the late Caroline Crawley of Shelleyan Orphan and "You and Your Sister" from Big Star's late Chris Bell by Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly, then together in The Breeders, and The Pixies and Throwing Muses, respectively -- work spectacularly, there are not quite enough of those sorts of performances to sustain Blood at the same pitch, and for a longer length, than the previous two albums from the collective. Still, there's a lot of cool stuff here, including one of my favorite This Mortal Coil instrumentals in the Ivo Watts-Russell-penned "Loose Joints", a neat segue into the Deal and Donelly performance mentioned above. However, Blood works best when it doesn't take too many new chances, like on a breathtaking stab at Syd Barrett's "Late Night" with vocals from Crawley, or an epic cover of Rodney Crowell's "'Til I Gain Control Again" which succeeds largely thanks to the presence of Heidi Berry, former Creation Records artist, then 4AD artist, on the selection. It is, like the spacious and space-y run at "I Am The Cosmos", by Chris Bell, near the end of the album, the sort of track that expands on the template of the covers from the first record. In a nice bit of symmetry, "I Am The Cosmos" here bookends how this all started in 1984, with a Bell solo track cover arriving near the end of this third and, to date, final This Mortal Coil release, in the same way that a Big Star cover started off the first album from this collective.

It'll End In Tears, Filigree and Shadow, and Blood remain essential albums, especially in these new versions from 4AD. They are masterpieces of curation, and wonderful examples of how alternative music was transformed in the Eighties, as the genre moved into new areas that were not ruled by shiny New Wave pop or jangling guitar-rock. There's a seriousness here that never descends into pretension, and that's frankly remarkable when you think about it. Ivo Watts-Russell and his collection of players made music on these three releases that truly transported a listener into a new space. These records have really never sounded better and even if you had these already, like I did, you will want to get these new versions. 4AD have done a fantastic job here.

It'll End In Tears, Filigree and Shadow, and Blood are out now via 4AD.