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This Mortal Coil
Box Set Vel Ilic , December 1st, 2011 05:02

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Fielding its strongest and most diverse roster for years (Zomby, Gang Gang Dance, Atlas Sound, Bon Iver, Twin Shadow, Joker, etc), artful label 4AD is once again firmly in the ascendancy. Founded by Ivo Watts-Russell – often enigmatically referred to as just 'Ivo', sans surname – in 1979, built on the tumultuous post-punk sounds of The Birthday Party, Dif Juz and Modern English, and properly defined by the Cocteau Twins, pioneers of superior empyreal gobbledegook, a label as staunchly independent as 4AD was never likely to remain sonically rooted to the spot. From that initial wave of early 1980s breakthrough acts to its present-day line-up, 4AD has reinvented itself brilliantly, with an eclectic current stable that dabbles fearlessly in outré dance-grooves, post-dubstep electronica and cosmic introspection. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Crucial to 4AD's development and overarching legacy were This Mortal Coil, the studio-based, multi-artist 'house band' conceived and produced by Ivo himself. The release of this remastered deluxe boxset, featuring all their albums (It'll End In Tears (1984), Filigree & Shadow (1986), Blood (1990), plus singles and rarities comp Dust & Guitars), is a long overdue re-appraisal of an influential, era-defining collective.

As is the 4AD way, aesthetics and content go hand-in-hand, so typically, no small details are spared. The lavishly-presented This Mortal Coil box – overseen by Ivo and Vaughan Oliver, the label's long-established visual guru – is indeed a thing of beauty. A tantalising online trailer shows only a pair of white-gloved hands (Ivo's?), carefully handling and caressing the tactile package, stroking the various albums and flicking provocatively through the inner sleeves; unseen images of Pallas Citroën, widely acknowledged as the 'face' of This Mortal Coil, are also included. To 4AD devotees, such teases are tantamount to sexual titillation.

Listening to all of these albums in one go is to be hurled back in time, to the unlit bedsit of earlier years, slumped on a mattress, headphones attached, chain-smoking roll-ups into the small hours, wallowing in solitude and a cheap bottle of red. Whether that's a half-remembered memory or a rose-tinted projection is irrelevant: hearing this stuff now, in the dead of night, This Mortal Coil's diaphanous timbres and outsider symphonies are still infinitely seductive, exquisite and real.

When This Mortal Coil's astonishing first album It'll End In Tears emerged in 1984, it was a revelation. An amalgam of esoteric cover versions and eldritch atmospherics, it drew a line in the sand, signalling a shift away from the goth-tinged fripperies of The Birthday Party and Bauhaus to a much softer, ethereal 4AD 'sound' (the beginnings of which were evident in the Cocteaus' Lullabies EP and debut album Garlands).

With Robin Guthrie's oscillating guitars, swathed in FX-pedal atmospherics, and Elizabeth Fraser's spectral voice, the Cocteaus were certainly half-synergists for This Mortal Coil's entirely crepuscular oeuvre; but the project really took shape as an extension of Ivo's desire to allow 4AD artists greater creative expression, and the option of recording carefully-chosen covers of precious and forgotten songs. That casual directive precipitated the release of the Sixteen Days/Gathering Dust EP in 1983 – This Mortal Coil's year zero – but it was the inordinate beauty of the B-side 'Song To The Siren', a version of the Tim Buckley standard, that bewitched legions of stunned listeners.

Despite Buckley's sublime original, Fraser's supremely haunting rendition marks This Mortal Coil out as the go-to version; there remains something infinitely alluring about listening to the eccentric, seemingly vulnerable chanteuse as she sings about the sea as a metaphor for the devastation of love. "I'm as puzzled as the new-born child / I'm as riddled as the tide," she trills, and despite repeated listens, it's an unadulterated pleasure that keeps on giving, enhanced only by watching the promo video. In it Fraser, all piercing eyes and quivering, expressive lips, delivers those powerful words with a sensual bluster that doesn't so much capture your heart as forcibly penetrate it with a hefty shard of glass.

How could you not be seduced? '...Siren' is by far the most glittering track, but the rest of the album, quintessentially ornate and doleful, still brims with depth and emotion, often so potent that the music itself seems to physically ache. There are plenty of choice moments: the sparse, druggy hues of 'The Last Ray', with its hollow bass riff, languid synths and echo-laden guitar chops, recalling the producerly genius of Factory's legendary Martin Hannett; the apocalyptic, Vangelis-like atonal drift of 'Fyt'; 'Dreams Made Flesh', driven by exotic Chinese dulcimer and Lisa Gerrard's swirling, mournful contralto, hints at the neo-classical sound that would later fully spawn Dead Can Dance; and on 'Another Day', Fraser even manages to sound like a seraphic Kate Bush. The mood, relentlessly gloomy and futile but strangely infectious, is momentarily lifted by a brisk, anomalous cover of Colin Newman's 'Not Me', sung by Modern English's Robbie Grey.

Two years down the line, Filigree & Shadow offered more of the same but, lacking fully-formed ideas, felt uneven. No less ornate than its predecessor, it's a highly polished work, mixing up further obscure covers (Dominic Appleton's Leonard Cohen croon on Pearls Before Swine's 'The Jeweller' is wonderfully resonant), grandiose multi-tracked arrangements and more angst-ridden vocalists plucked from the 4AD stable. It's easy to be subsumed by the album's tortured intensity, patchy though it is: from poignant piano-led instrumental 'Ivy And Neet' to the dramatic melancholy of 'I Want To Live', some of it is oddly euphoric, but could just as easily rip flimsy souls apart.

And in less able hands, lines such as "If I was someone, I would like to be a fool / No-one would know me, and I think that would be cool" would surely meet with snorts of derision, but not here: Deidre and Louise Rutkowski's detached phrasing is immaculate. In contrast to much of Filigree..., 1990's Blood, the final piece of the official trilogy, is an extraordinarily cogent affair. Although intended to reflect a turbulent period in Ivo's life, it is meticulously orchestrated, with expertly judged highs and undulating moods; an absorbing brace of Big Star covers, 'You And Your Sister' and 'I Am The Cosmos', the latter as close to beatific rockin' out as TMC ever got, are exquisitely tempered by the dubby, segmented ambience of 'Dreams Are Like Water', and the near-folky euphony of 'I Come And Stand At Every Door'.

It's difficult to view bonus album Dust & Guitars as anything other than a marketing ploy to promote the wider package. There's really nothing new to add to the canon, save for a couple of rare-ish cuts and an otherwise unavailable – but toweringly lovely – recording of Neil Young's 'We Never Danced'. On the whole though, this remarkable, graceful music – wholly mind-altering and hallucinatory without recourse to stimulants – is narcissistic bliss, a requisite standby for shutting out the world and basking in splendid isolation. Just turn out the lights, plug in, and indulge.

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Post-Punk Monk
Dec 1, 2011 3:59pm

For my ears, the "Filigree + Shadow" album was always the quintessence of TMC's output. "Blood" never convinced me. I'll forego the boxed set; my original pressings will suffice. But youth today have a lot to look forward to.

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Dec 1, 2011 4:53pm

Have to take issue with the idea their version of Song to the Siren is the definitive one

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Vel Ilic
Dec 1, 2011 5:57pm

In reply to Doges:

There's no doubting the beauty of Tim Buckley's original, but for me, TMC just take it up a notch or two. I guess it's subjective, but to my mind, TMC's version is more celestial; along with the sparse production, the intense emotion and vulnerability in Fraser's voice just turns that song into something extra-special. And it's the same for many others I've spoken to about this - in my experience, it just seems to be the one that people prefer.

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Dec 1, 2011 7:56pm

Not to be a prick, but the two "Big Star" covers are Chris Bell solo tracks.
I wouldn't point this out but for the chance that someone might google "chris bell cosmos" and discover the amazing/heart-rending handful of songs he recorded after he left Big Star and before his death.

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Dec 2, 2011 12:59pm

In reply to anon:

its a shame this is getting more attention than the recent Throwing Muses anthology. Throwing Muses were, in my opinion, 4ad's greatest band, along with Pixies and to a slightly lesser degree Cocteau Twins. they have never gotten the attention or love they deserved, i thought that this may have changed with the Anthology but 4ad did such a negligent job promoting it that it has gone by virtually unnoticed. Shame. there was a lovely interview with them on The Quietus of course.

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Dec 3, 2011 6:52pm

In reply to Vel Ilic:

Yeah I totally agree that that is the version most people go for, and that it's of course totally subjective. Tim's version on the 'The Dream Belongs To Me' anthology is quite different to the one most people know from 'Starsailor' and remains for me the best expression of that song. Very interesting review btw.

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potion lords
Dec 7, 2011 2:22am

sacred music

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Matthew K
Dec 20, 2011 11:27pm

Funny not to mention The Hope Blister - the awkward TMC retread which followed in the 90s. I always liked the idea of the TMC records, and individual tracks, more than the albums themselves. As has been mentioned, Mr Fryer's work was most likely the sustaining interest across somewhat arbitrary assemblies of artists and material. I'd go so far as to say that Fryer's work shepherded 4AD through its critical years and was in some ways the defining aesthetic of the label. On many late 80s / early 90s 4AD album the sound was wonderful but the material was actually pretty slight - it was just the brilliant production job which captured my interest.

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Che Nyenko
Jul 1, 2014 7:16pm

Filigree and Shadow: 'patchy'?! In fact: one of the greatest artistic endeavours of the entire decade. Listen harder.

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