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This Mortal Coil - Profile

  by Mark Rowland

published: 13 / 10 / 2018

This Mortal Coil - Profile


This Mortal Coil’s three albums are being remastered and reissued in new deluxe editions on CD and vinyl. Mark Rowland, a This Mortal Coil novice, digs into their back catalogue.

Without This Mortal Coil, ‘Twin Peaks’ wouldn’t be the same. David Lynch loved the project’s cover of Tim Buckley’s ‘Song to the Siren’ so much that he wanted to include it in his film ‘Blue Velvet’. The lawyers for Tim Buckley’s estate put paid to that ambition, and he ended up using Julee Cruise and Angelo Badalamenti, who went on to score the director’s iconic television series. It’s not that surprising; if one was to describe This Mortal Coil’s music in one word, ‘Lynchian’ wouldn’t be a bad shout. At least, that’s what comes to mind when listening to it thirty years after its release. Until now, This Mortal Coil has completely passed me by. I knew two things about it: it was the passion project of 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell, and ‘Song to the Siren’, which I sometimes remembered as a Cocteau Twins record (and technically, it is). But over the past couple of weeks, I’ve immersed myself in all things This Mortal Coil: their three albums, their influence, and the part they play in 4AD’s legacy. It was a project that was simultaneously brilliant and beautiful, indulgent and overwrought, but mostly a unique and very affecting piece of work that resurrected interest in the careers of long-forgotten artists such as Big Star, Tim Buckley and Roy Harper. None of these acts would have the cult following they have today without This Mortal Coil. It also planted the seeds that brings 4AD’s first era to an end. The project came about almost by accident. Ivo Watts-Russell was particularly taken with 4AD act Modern English’s set-closing medley of two old songs, ‘16 Days’ and ‘Gathering Dust’. He asked the band if they’d record the medley as a single, but the band refused. So. he decided to record a version himself. He recruited frequent 4AD engineer John Fryer to help with the recording, and asked Gordon Sharp of Cindytalk and Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins to record the vocals. The B side, he decided, would be his favourite Tim Buckley track, ‘Song to the Siren’, sung by Fraser acapella. Fraser struggled to record the vocal unaccompanied, so her Cocteau Twins bandmate Robin Guthrie (reluctantly, allegedly) recorded a guitar part for Fraser to sing over. The song worked so well that Watts-Russell made it the A side on the 7” version of the single, and it climbed the charts. Spurred on by its success, Watts-Russell decided to make a full album around his vision. That album, ‘It’ll End in Tears’, is the tightest and most consistent of the This Mortal Coil albums. Watts-Russell roped in members of 4AD acts Colourbox, Dead Can Dance, Modern English, all of Cocteau Twins (Simon Raymonde, along with Fraser and Guthrie), and Wolfgang Press. Fryer, and arranger Martin McCarrick, rounded out the key personnel. Along with ‘Song to the Siren’, Watts-Russell chose two tracks from Big Star’s ‘Third’ – ‘Kangaroo’ and ‘Holocaust’, sung by Gordon Sharp and Magazine’s Howard Devoto respectively. Elizabeth Fraser sang Roy Harper’s ‘Another Day’. But the project broke away from ethereal interpretations of old songs when players such as Simon Raymonde started recording original pieces, such as the jangling guitar duel ‘Barramundi’. The record sold just as well, if not better, than 4AD’s actual roster, much to the particular chagrin of Robin Guthrie, who liked total control over the records he put out, and remains critical of the work there. But ‘It’ll End in Tears’, if a little bleak and dramatic, is full of beautiful, moving moments, helped by Watts-Russell’s choice of very emotive singers: Sharp, Fraser, Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard, and Devoto. This Mortal Coil’s next album, ‘Filigree and Shadow’ is the most self-indulgent of the three. Recorded over the course of several sessions by the core team of Watts-Russell, Fryer, McCarrick and Raymonde, the album – a whopping twenty-five tracks long – is largely instrumental. Turned down by Gerrard, Fraser, and established singers Scott Walker, David Sylvian and Robert Wyatt, Watts-Russell recruited relatively unknown singers such as Dominic Appleton, the Rutowski sisters, Richenel, and Alison Limerick. The album comes across as the soundtrack to a lost (possibly David Lynch-directed) film, at times creepy, tense, and sad. Some songs, such as Pearls Before Swine cover ‘The Jeweller’ and Buckley song ‘Morning Glory’ stand out, but the album overstays its welcome somewhat. That said, it’s a nice one to listen to while you work. This Mortal Coil’s third and final album, ‘Blood’, came at a low point for Watts-Russell, particularly due to his break-up with his long-term partner and assistant Deborah Edgely, and the dissolution of his friendship (and working relationship) with the Cocteau Twins. Only Fryer, McCarrick, Dominic Appleton and the Rutowski sisters followed Watts-Russell over from the previous record. Virtually no 4AD acts are to be found on the record – Kim Deal, Tanya Donnelly and Pieter Nooten are the exceptions. Caroline Crawley, the singer from Shellyan Orphan, steals the show with just four songs out of twenty-one. While the Rutowski sisters are on more tracks across the album, Crawley gets the best cuts. Her interpretation of the Apartments’ ‘Mr Somewhere’ is divine. On Syd Barrett’s ‘Late Night’, she manages to capture the troubled whimsy of the original while also making it sound downright menacing. Like on ‘Filigree and Shadow’, ‘Blood’ is perhaps a tad too long, and could probably lose a few tracks without losing much from the record. But over-indulgence is part of the fabric of This Mortal Coil. By its very nature, the passion project of the owner of the record label is going to be an indulgent affair. The shocking part of the whole thing is just how good the finished products are. Yes, Watts-Russell had some very talented collaborators to call on, but it could easily fallen apart without someone with a clear vision steering the ship. That vision is a bit much to take all in one go, just for its relentless bleakness, but you’d have to be stony hearted not to be moved by it. This Mortal Coil’s albums – ‘It’ll End In Tears’, ‘Filigree and Shadow’, and ‘Blood’ – are being reissued in remastered deluxe editions on CD and vinyl on the 26th October

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This Mortal Coil - Profile

This Mortal Coil - Profile

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Interview (2011)
This Mortal Coil - Interview
Former 4AD label owner Ivo Watts-Russell talks to John Clarkson about his atmospheric and influential 1980s project, This Mortal Coil; its three albums and just released new box set

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