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Class ?

Main Category: Mood Music
Also applicable: Psychedelia, Art Rock
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a This Mortal Coil fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective This Mortal Coil fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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As every half-informative site that knows at least a little about Eighties music will tell you, This Mortal Coil isn't a true band, but rather a "project" put together from various odds and sodds by 4AD label president Ivo Watts-Russell with the purpose of... well, mainly goofing around. The "lineup" has never been stable, the material seems to always be chosen at random, yet somehow they manage to cook up interesting production in spite of all the odds. Further information later.



Year Of Release: 1984

I have no idea what this album's purpose was in the first place. To have a nice pretext for getting all those people acquainted? To cover some of their favourite songs? To cook up a unique atmosphere? To muddle everybody's mind? Anyway, the fact is that It'll End In Tears is a set of twelve numbers, mostly covers but a few 'originals' (some even credited to This Mortal Coil) tossed in as well, where various 4AD artists, from the Cocteau Twins to Dead Can Dance to everybody in between get a chance to display their... uhm, their something.

Don't get spooked off in the very beginning, though. The band's name souds pretty morbid, the album's title sounds even more morbid, and the fact that Ivo Watts preferred to focus his attention on artists who were grim, serious, and pessimistic and heartily compensated for that with a total lack of sense of humor, certainly doesn't predict a joyful listen. But it isn't a generic Goth recording a la Cure either, and, in fact, it's much more light and easy on the ear than just about any of these actual artists on their own (well, I'm not really familiar with The Wolfgang Press, so I couldn't really tell - but at least I'm pretty sure that those artists whom I've actually heard from this bunch probably treated this album as a 'holiday record' or something).

The choice of covers is totally unpredictable as well. First, you got a whoppin' two Big Star performances, where first Gordon Sharp of Cindytalk pays homage to Alex Chilton on 'Kangaroo', and next Howard Devoto props him up on 'Holocaust'. That should give you an overall idea of what to expect; Third/Sister Lovers, where the songs are taken from, is, of course, Big Star's most depressed album, reflecting Chilton's nervous breakdown and an almost sneering anti-commercial stance, BUT - on the other hand - it is still Big Star, not Throbbing Gristle or anything, it's essentially pop music, all drenched in minor chords for sure, but never hard enough on grinding, acute, brain-distorting sounds of the new decade. And both of the covers are done in a pretty straightforward manner - a few moody Baroque violins here and there, a gloomy bassline on 'Kangaroo', a somber Chiltonesque piano on 'Holocaust', nothing else. Very well done, with grace and taste and delicacy. Nothing really "weird" over the weirdness already established by the originals.

Another covered author is Tim Buckley - Liz Fraser sings his 'Song To The Siren', accompanied by a surprisingly restricted, almost minimalist guitar from Guthrie, and while her version is certainly nowhere near as crazy and ear-dazzling as Tim's original, it is also far more listenable, so much that it even enjoyed minor success when put out as the single from the album. Gordon Sharp adds another vocal performance on the cover of Rema Rema's 'Fond Affections' (Rema Rema are an almost unknown post-punk band of the early Eighties who managed only to put out one short EP before falling apart and partially transforming into The Wolfgang Press, who are, not coincidentally, also present on the album), which is much more of a mood music thing than every other vocal track on here... well, then again maybe not. The previous three songs weren't exactly about hooks either.

The funny thing, speaking of hooks, is that the further the album progresses, the more hooks there are - at one point, Fraser turns in an inspired, almost gorgeous rendition of Roy Harper's 'Another Day', all violins and cellos and vocals in an almost pre-Bach like arrangement, yet that vocal melody is sometimes catchy (too bad I have yet to hear the original). And near the end, Robbie Grey of Modern English fame leads the backing band (that includes Guthrie on guitar again and Simon Raymonde, also from the Twins, on bass) in an upbeat rendition of Wire's 'Not Me', which, as far as I know, they actually revved up - pretty amazing to hear a morbid moody band such as TMC take a Wire song of all bands and punch it up, eh?

The rest of the tunes are all instrumentals (or feature "wordless" vocals), mostly good - for example, 'Fyt' establishes a gritty industrial atmosphere, with its squelching "boink - bzzzhang - boink - bzzzzhang" rhythm and all kinds of underworldly (or factory-related, whatever) synth effects pouring out of the speakers; and Lisa Gerrard's 'Dreams Made Flesh' is almost classic Dead Can Dance, with Lisa's qin at the forefront and her trembling, "mental" vocalizing fully established. A couple other instrumentals, like 'Barramundi', aren't particularly creative, but they're still decent background mood music. All in all, it's just a cute album to relax to - maybe meditate a little. Maybe get stoned - I don't know why similar-purposed Sixties albums are supposed to be listened to while stoned and these ones are not. Anyway, just do what you like, like Ginger Baker said. You won't establish the meaning of this album anyway, even if there is one.



Year Of Release: 1986

An even bigger and monumental album here - seventy-three friggin' minutes - and this time, pretty much all of the names are obscure to the ignorant little me. Dominic Appleton? Louise Rutkowski? David Curtis? Alison Limerick? Engelbert Humperdinck? Keith Mitchell? Tony Waerea? (Spot the odd one out - hey, it's time we at Only Solitaire integrated with children entertainment!). Feel free to mail me any comments on any of these guys, including biography blurbs, passport photocopies, secret FBI dossiers and old wastebasket leftovers. I'm admitting to being absolutely, totally, and thoroughly uninformed on any of them, and if I even started educating myself on the issue, I would be reading huge volumes on 4AD now instead of doing something more valuable.

What I do know is that the album itself is very very good, just as its predecessor. Again, the meaning of it remains obscure. It's a long long long collection of mood pieces, fully fleshed originals, reinvented covers, experimental avantgarde sonic collages, and what-not. In general, it seems a little bit more accessible second time around, maybe even more commercial in a sense. In fact, many of the songs would probably easily fit the definition of "alternative adult contemporary" - if you thought the two things were oxymoronic, take a listen to this album. These are moody, static-oriented, inoffensive, inobtrusive songs, yet with a certain unique brand of creativity and depth that's all their own.

Let me just namecheck a few of these ditties. Dominic Appleton takes lead vocals on the extremely pretty folk ballad 'The Jeweller' (credited to Thomas Rapp of Pearls Before Swine fame), with a gorgeous 'he knows the use of ashes' chorus and typically 4AD-ish otherworldly backing vocals. 'Tarantula' is credited to Martin Young of Colourbox fame, and it's another example of how minimalistic piano is sometimes much better than complex piano - very Eno-ish in form, although it is embellished with excellent violin work. The contrast between the violin-dominated male-sung verses and the weirdly produced piano-based chorus is a terrific hook by itself - somewhat disrupting the steady gentle flow of the song, but only so that you wouldn't just float by without noticing it yourself.

Then there's the Judy Collins-written (hey, did I say "adult contemporary"?), Alison Limerick-sung 'My Father' - turns out that the "4AD Treatment" works really well when applied to mushy ballads, because without generic orchestration and with all those sinister layers of echoes and stuff the songs are acquiring some real majesty. Van Morrison is the next one to get the treatment - his 'Come Here My Love' is transformed into a shiver-sending gothic dirge, sung by Jean (yeah, just Jean. No additional naming required!) in a most impersonal and eerie way. Gene Clark doesn't evade four-aaiee-deeing either, but he gets it the good way: the cover of his 'Strength Of Strings' is easily the best, most emotionally devastating song on the album. Again, the Appleton guy takes lead vocals, and the combo of his singing, moody, slightly Easternish strings, and this grim grinding synth background makes total musical sense. There's some kind of undefinable serene majesty in this version that I could even compare to the George Harrison majesty of All Things Must Pass, although from a purely technical perspective 4AD certainly has nothing to do with any Harrison songs. But the produced effect? You just might have something there.

Deirdre and Louise Rutkowski take lead vocals on Tim Buckley's 'Morning Glory' - a clear case of original pure beauty made even more beautiful through further treatment. Dang, these guys sure have good taste in material. Gary Ogan's 'I Want To Live', dominated by a murky harmonium sound, features less production gimmicks than usual, and is in a certain sense more "downhome" than the other tracks, but still, how "downhome" can a song be if it features 'I want to die' repeated throughout the song? It surely fits in with the general atmosphere.

Not that the general atmosphere is depressing - it's 4AD, and that means eschewing your basic well-definable emotionality and aiming for something more, uhm, transcendental and less earthly. I haven't yet mentioned any of the instrumental tracks, and probably never will, but they range from very quiet angelic chiming pieces to harsh ear-splitting industrial-influenced rhythmic passages, and they never pop up in any expected places. And since there's so many of them, you can be sure you'll be learning something new every time you put the record on.

Thus, the most important thing is that the album really lives up to repeated listens, and actually produces the effect of a coherent art piece, unlike many similar "projects" which can be admired once as isolated spontaneous exercises in "artistry", then forever discarded. Filigree & Shadow probably will be, too, just because This Mortal Coil will never get enough recognition as an "artist", but that would not be quite right, I'm afraid.



Year Of Release: 1991

Third time around, and the idea suddenly doesn't seem to be as fresh as before. That's the poor thing about artificial "projects" like these - they have much more chance of becoming alike to inferior movie sequels than to normal music artist careers. And this considering that five years lie in between Blood and Mortal Coil's previous release, too. No wonder Ivo openly declared that Blood would be the last Mortal Coil album, and up until today has been keeping his word.

It's not really bad - 4AD has been renown for its superior taste and all - but it starts becoming way too predictable, and while I'm positively sure there is at least a small bunch of "extraordinary" TMC fans in this world who will probably want to claim this as best album ever recorded, I really don't see, even after multiple repeated listens, what exactly this next installation ends to the already well-known universe of TMC. Perhaps bringing in some fresh blood could have helped, but, unlike the previous time when the "cast" from the first record was almost completely replaced, here the main characters are still the same - Louise and Deirdre Rutkowski, Alison Limerick, Dominic Appleton, etc.; some of the instrumentalists have been replaced indeed, but the emphasis is still on recreating the stylistics of Filigree as goddamn close as possible.

Again, they display good taste in covers, I'll grant 'em that. This time, Syd Barrett's 'Late Night' gets the 4AD treatment - with nothing but a very very far away humming synthesizer and a certain Caroline Crawley delivering the accappella vocals. It's beautiful. Also, once again there's a great deal of love'n'care for Big Star: there are two Chris Bell covers, an acoustic guitar rendition of 'You And Your Sister', and then towards the end a full-band rendition of 'I Am The Cosmos', both absolutely excellent (good songs in the first place, too). The most unusual thing, though, is the rearrangement of 'I Come And Stand At Every Door' (traditional, but you most probably know it in the Byrds arrangement). With vocals from the Rutkowski gals, it again starts as a near accappella number, with occassional strings bursting out, but then gets a bashin'-and-smashin' near-industrial rhythm and an almost Gothic swoop. Creative? Sure.

But these are the high points, and then there's lots and lots of so-so-ones. Even these covers, you know? They're beautiful and all, but none come close to matching the bombastic majesty of 'Strength Of Strings'. And then there's instrumental after instrumental, tons of pretty, but ultimately forgettable "sonic landscapes", many of them penned by Ivo himself (too many this time around, I'd say), and many of them totally unnecessary. Not that they're necessarily worse than the ones you heard on Filigree, but it's just that there's no new ideas present. There are still some lovely relaxing passages, and then, just to make sure this is not pure soft pablum, once in a while there's a grinding distorted guitar instrumental or two ('Ruddy And Wretched' is the best one of these, with some terrific forward-and-backward guitar work from Jim Williams), but I'm starting to get tired of it.

And the album is long, too, even longer than Filigree. With the epic 'Dreams Are Like Water' (eight and a half minutes long), it runs as long as the CD can allow, and does that epic even deserve to be that long? I'm not sure. There are a couple catchy synth riffs, and a kinda catchy vocal section, but... eh... it's not particularly inspiring. Besides, some of the pieces are just plain throwaways. Unless I turn the volume all the way up loud on the final track ('(Nothing But) Blood'), I can't hear anything but the naggin' tambour slap, and when I do, I hear nothing but a weak three-chord melody that doesn't exactly seem to understand itself whether it's supposed to be a piece of obvious "ambience" or a piece with real melodic substance.

In short, Blood simply demonstrates that the age of This Mortal Coil is passing. It was great music for the first half of the Eighties, when other 4AD acts like the Twins and Dead Can Dance ruled supreme; with the massive advent of "alternative adult contemporary" such as the Cranberries, Sinead O'Connor, and throw in the whole Lilith Fair for good reason, Blood is kinda unnecessary - in fact, downright superfluous. Not that I would heartily dis-recommend it if it happens to be your first buy for the band - it's as good an introduction into the overall style as any; but if you happen to dig into the band chronologically, I'm pretty sure you'll find it a relative disappointment, like me. Still, pretty high quality background music it is.


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