One of the great musical movements to emerge from the ’80s was the 4AD phenomenon. 4AD was more than just a stylish English record label. It was a design entity that encompassed styles of music, dress and a general attitude. From it new variants of marketable goth emerged with a sense of mystery, melancholy and of course merchandise. After all 4AD and its print wing/design studio 23 Envelop was no stranger to the pages of Communication Arts.
I was hooked as soon as I heard IT’ll End in Tears, the bands first full-length album. From that point on I tried getting every 4AD release I could get my hands on (very few were available in those days). Even albums who’s cover art shamelessly copied 23 Envelope, became fair game for a listen, as the 4AD look was imitated widely in everything from album art to publication design.
While the label created by Russel-Ivo-Watts had more than its share of style, Watts decided that a label supergroup would be the best way to promote the 4AD brand and associated acts. It was also a way to present the 4AD sound and design philosophy in one neat package for the uninitiated. He called this revolving band of players This Mortal Coil (TMC), a name inspired by a Shakespeare reference.
The concept started with a leftover Modern English song and soon evolved into a EP. By the first full length album It’ll End in Tears, Watts had assembled a who’s who of the 4AD universe. Each song performed by combinations of vocalists/musicians from any number of 4AD acts.
The songs were often re-imaginings of ’70s and ’80s material from folk and rock acts. The 4AD treatment often was unrecognizable and often bringing something completely new to the song’s original meaning. This style sometimes gave It’ll End in Tears the sound of a label based greatest hits with each song stamped by the artist who performed it.
By the time the second This Mortal Coil album Filigree & Shadow was released, TMC had settled down to four percent members. Simon Raymond of the Cocteau Twins, producer John Fryer, arranger Martin McCarrick, and Ivo Watts-Russell were still the core. Despite a team of nearly 25 vocalists and musicians, most songs were led by variety of mostly female singers, none of whom included Elizabeth Frazier as on It’ll End In Tears.
Filigree & Shadow sounded more concise in that the songs flowed together as if there were part of some great melody. Watts-Russell went through great lengths to arrange the tracks on the double LP so that would flow together. It was the label’s first double LP (but was available as one expensive import CD in the US).
With fewer bands injecting individual personalities, This Mortal Coil began to take on attributes of the label’s biggest stars; The Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance. While beautiful songs like Van Morrison’s “Come Here My Love” would feature impassioned vocals by Jean, others showcased a surprising soulfulness of Dominic Appleton in “Tarantula”, a song by 4AD band Colourbox.
Like It’ll End In Tears, like Filigree & Shadow had a full cast of musicians and backup singers. The recording sessions must have looked like a label business meeting as no less than 20 affiliated artist made some kind of contribution.
Filigree & Shadow was always my favorite of This Mortal Coils three albums because it best embodied the sound the label was famous for. The peaks and valleys of mixing Modern English with Clan of Xymox was eliminated the second go round as the consistency of the individual performances was more befitting of a unified sound.
Filigree & Shadow is a great way to jump into the 4AD sound short of buying Lonely is an Eyesore one of the few compilation albums issued by 4AD.