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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

25 Years Later: This Mortal Coil - 'Blood'

Posted By on Wed, Apr 20, 2016 at 8:05 AM

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Only a small handful of record labels have ever been so successful at defining a sonic/stylistic approach that the label's name is used as shorthand to describe that very approach. And, of those labels, an even smaller number had the artistic confidence to routinely rearrange members of its roster into new "bands" in order to more deeply explore that sound. In fact, I can only think of two: Motown and 4AD. And while Ivo Watts-Russell was definitely no Berry Gordy (Ivo had no interest in success or the bottom line, while that's pretty much all that Gordy was focused on), the two label heads shared a staunch commitment to their labels' artistic identities and were more than willing to put their thumbs on the scales when they wanted to ensure that the music they released aligned with their goals.

Gordy's machinations were, of course, almost completely behind the scenes, reassigning musicians and composers to different tasks in the Motown hit factory's assembly line. Watts-Russell – a noted non-musician – went quite a few steps further and created an entirely new project for which he would select performers, songs, and concepts, and then basically conduct the entire affair to achieve his artistic and vision. The project was called This Mortal Coil, and the first album by the "group," 1984's It'll End In Tears featured a dozen musicians from various 4AD acts, including Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, and Colourbox, as well as non-4AD artists like Cindytalk's Gordon Sharp and Magazine's Howard Devoto. 1986's Filigree and Shadow featured 23 musicians, bringing in members of the Wolfgang Press, Dif Juz, and even more outside players.

These two albums were absolutely a consummate expression of Watts-Russell's musical approach, both in terms of sound (the dark-night-of-the-soul ethereality, the soundscape constructions) and in material (covers of Tim Buckley, Big Star, and transcendent folk artists like Pearls Before Swine, Roy Harper, Van Morrison, and Gene Clark provided unmistakable signposts), but by framing TMC as a "band," the records were able to define themselves on their own artistic merits. And those merits were considerable, as it is widely understood that the Buckley and Big Star renditions performed by This Mortal Coil were largely responsible for the resuscitation of those artists' reputations in the alt/indie '80s.

By the time the third This Mortal Coil album – Blood – came out in April of 1991, things were different. 4AD had very much established itself as a musical brand while simultaneously expanding its musical and financial horizons via a string of surprisingly successful and decidedly non-ethereal releases by the likes of Pixies, Lush, and Throwing Muses, which had garnered the label global distribution and recognition. 4AD was no longer as cozy and singular as it was in its early days, so the re-emergence of This Mortal Coil felt both like a reassertion of ethos ("It's still mine..." Watts-Russell seemed to be saying) and like the closing of a chapter ("...but I realize where thing are going," he seemed to sigh).

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To be sure, Blood definitely fit within the parameters of previous TMC albums, ticking the three primary requisite boxes: 1) a large cast of vocalists (a dozen, including newer 4AD artists like Kim Deal, Tanya Donnelly, and Heidi Berry), 2) a reliance on ethereal covers of space-folk classics by the likes of Spirit, Gene Clark, Big Star's Chris Bell, Syd Barrett, and others), and, 3) reflective interstitial soundscapes. But the energy was notably different, with a dismal resignation taking the place of the previous two albums' sense of swooning melancholy. Even the dynamic lineup of the previous albums seemed to have settled, with Watts-Russell leaning on vocalists Deirdre and Louise Rutkowski (who had appeared on Filigree and Shadow) for nearly two-thirds of the album's songs. Oddly, that vocal consistency makes Blood the most "band-like" of all three TMC albums, but it also makes it feel like one of the least experimental. (Somewhat ironically, Louise Rutkowski would go on to work with Watts-Russell on his Hope Blister project in 1998, which took the dream-drenched-covers idea of This Mortal Coil and applied it to a fixed group of musicians, resulting in an effort much more sonically daring than Blood.)

And while Blood was certainly the least groundbreaking of all three This Mortal Coil albums, it still succeeds at being a singular and evocative expression of a non-artist's artistic vision. It definitely seems to reflect Watts-Russell's hesistant relationship with being identified as the head of a successful indie label as it notably functions as a terrible calling card for the 4AD roster ca. 1991. Of course, calling back to one's glory days while tentatively pushing forward into middle age stasis is what creative types tend to do in their late 30s, it's just that Ivo got to make a whole album about it.

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