Wednesday, October 23, 2013


4AD :  the Dozen
director's cut, eMusic, 2006
by Simon Reynolds

4AD was founded by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent in 1979 as an offshoot of the independent label Beggars Banquet and intended as a spawning group for groups to graduate to the larger label. The imprint soon became its own entity, with a sensibility rooted in the adventurous, open-ended spirit and sonics of 1979, but tilted towards the darker, more existentialist side of post-punk- (Joy Division and the Banshees, rather than the politically militant Gang of Four end of things). 

Crucial to 4AD’s burgeoning mystique was the lush and enigmatic artwork of Vaughan Oliver, whose role in establishing the label’s identity was as important as Peter Saville’s at Factory. 4AD’s earliest acts were proto-Goth outfits like Bauhaus, The Birthday Party, and Rema Rema, but the label really blossomed circa 1983 with a sound you could call, not unkindly, Goth-lite: delicately textured and gentler on the ear than the harsh ‘n’ hammy horror-show that Goth proper had degenerated to, oriented more to rapture and reverie than the macabre or morbid. 

4AD will be forever identified with its signature Goth-lite group the Cocteau Twins, but other key signings of this period include Dead Can Dance, Xmal Deutschland, and Wolfgang Press.  Just as the “4AD sound” was getting perilously close to formula, the label reinvented itself in the late Eighties, by catching a wave of arty-but-raw, rootsy-but-weird rock coming out of America: the brilliant New England outfits Throwing Muses and Pixies (and later its offshoot The Breeders). In the Nineties, the label diversified again, signing shoegazers Lush and Pale Saints while keeping an eye out for American talent like Nick Drake-like melancholics the Red House Painters. The label faded from earshot for much of the Nineties but has recently resurged with critically acclaimed acts like TV on the Radio, Piano Magic, and living legend Scott Walker.

After the Snow

Many British groups in the early Eighties struggled to shake off Joy Division’s influence. The cold marble beauty of their sound and the mature majesty it lent to adolescent despair proved so compellingly original it practically condemned a generation to non-originality. (Hell, even New Order had some difficulties carving out a fresh path). Following their Closer-damaged 1981 debut Mesh and Lace, Modern English stepped boldly into the light with a sound that found the interzone between Joy Division-style severity and Orchestral Manoevures in the Dark winsomeness.  The tom-tom churning drums frequently infringe Steven Morris trademark patterns and the bass guitar drones melodiously a la Peter Hook, but the sparkling guitars and soaring synths could be Tears for Fears or Depeche Mode. The bouncy gloom of a tune like the oh-so ironically titled “Life in the Gladhouse” is perfect for Goths who want to dance but keep their deep’n’mysterious cool intact. The sighing chorus “oh me, oh my” verges on comical but the great rolling beat banishes any reservations. Indeed throughout it’s the lithe exuberance of the rhythm section (drummer Richard Brown and bassist Mick Conroy) that makes After the Snow such a  winning slab of Goth-lite. That, and artful arrangements and mad-catchy tunes, such as MTV perennial and wedding-song fave “I Melt With You”.

Far from 4AD’s most famous or celebrated band, instrumental quartet Dif Juz were nonetheless reputedly the Cocteau Twins’ favorite group. Indeed Robin Guthrie produced this, their sole full-length excursion.  Soaked in reverb and echoplex (the group were huge dub fans but thankfully never stray into the faux-skank zone), Dif Juz’s dual guitar interplay resembles an out-of-focus Television or Durutti Column heard from the bottom of a lake. Impressionistic and rhapsodic, the plangent ripples and frenetic flurries scattered by guitarist brothers Dave and Alan Curtis dominate the proceedings, but Harold Budd-like piano peeks through on “Love Insane” (along with an offkey Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteaus) while Richie Thomas’ saxophone on tunes like “Crosswinds” recalls the serene fjord-scapes of ECM artists like Jan Garbarek. Listen expecting shapely song-structures or clearly signposted melodic pathways, and you’ll be frustrated. But if you surrender to the be-here-now meander of it all, the spangled eddies and lustrous whorls of the Dif Juz sound will carry you up and away. 

Filigree & Shadow
With This Mortal Coil, 4AD boss Ivo pioneered a format since adopted by the likes of U.N.K.L.E.--the non-musician with loads of ideas surrounded by a floating pool of musicians and guest collaborators who help realise his vision. In this case, the project largely involved cover versions of obscure Ivo favorites and is perhaps best understood as a form of rock criticism and an act of canon-making. In the mid-Eighties, the choices Ivo made were striking: then largely forgotten post-psychedelic minstrels like Roy Harper, Big Star’s Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, Tim Buckley, Tom Rapp. While the first This Mortal Coil album, 1984’s It’ll End In Tears, features the project’s single most successful reinterpretation (Liz Fraser’s awesome and damn near original-eclipsing version of Buckley’s “Song to the Siren”) Filigree & Shadow has the edge over the debut. Two more Buckley tunes (“I Must Have Been Blind” and “Morning Glory”) are joined by “Strength of Strings” off Gene Clark’s solo album No Other and a version of Pearls Before Swine’s “The Jeweller”.  The stand-out remakes aren’t from the singer-songwriter era, though, but postpunk: a clangorous treatment of Talking Heads’ “Drugs” and a version of “Alone” even more glacial and gripping than Colin Newman’s original on his post-Wire solo debut A-Z. Ivo’s overt over-arching concept for This Mortal Coil was a twin celebration of “the beauty of despair” and the timelessness of song. But one also suspects a secret semi-conscious motivation: claiming for 4AD the kind of maverick stature held by Elektra Records in its heyday.


The Moon and the Melodies

No one would claim this is Harold Budd’s finest half-hour (that would be his Brian Eno Ambient Series collaboration The Plateaux of Mirror), nor that it’s the Cocteau Twins’ peak achievement (too many contenders to list). But it is a captivating cul de sac off  the beaten track of both artists’ trajectories. And an apt pairing, given their idyllicism and mutual ardour for effects-saturated texture. Cocteau soundboys Guthrie and Raymonde do a good job of standing in for Eno on “Memory Gongs”, cloaking Budd’s piano in a mist of reverb to create an effect like the autumn dawn-mist slowly rising while a watery sun peeks through yellow-hazed sky. The instrumentals are nice but inevitably the most breathtaking moments come when Liz Fraser’s voice enters the soundscape. All updrafts, currents, tides and breakers, “Ooze Out and Away, Onehow” is a mermaid torch song, while the shatteringly lovely “Eyes Are Mosaics” would be regarded as a Cocteau Twins classic if it had appeared on one of their “proper” albums.

Within the Realm of a Dying Sun
Dead Can Dance’s motto could be “anywhere but here, anywhen but now.”  At once somber and ornamental, their music forges links between Medievalism (Gothic in the original sense of the word, DCD’s sound often recalls liturgical music designed for the reverberant spaces of massive cathedrals) and the non-West (you can hear threads of Middle Eastern, African, and Oriental music in their tapestry of exotica).  This Australian duo is also something of a split personality group. Running a very close second to Liz Fraser, Lisa Gerrard’s voice is a thing of wonder in both senses of the word: awe is her primary emotion, awe is what her piercing ululations strike in the listener. Brendan Perry is closer to the mold of the troubled troubadours that inspired This Mortal Coil, figures like Tims Rose and Buckley, and above all Scott Walker. This means that his rather portentous lyrics (song titles like “In The Wake of Adversity”) sometimes weigh down his undeniably grand and mellifluous singing. On Within the Realm, the follow-up to Dead Can Dance’s dark masterpiece Spleen and Ideal, the split personality was splayed across the two separate sides of the original vinyl album. Side One frontloads Perry’s doomy ballads and gloomy instrumentals, while the reverse is devoted to Gerrard’s devotionals, like the dervish-whirling “Cantara”. Her singing is so bliss-rich that “In the Dawn of the Iconoclast” was sampled for the Ecstasy anthem “Papua New Guinea” by the Future Sound of London.  Later in the group’s career, DCD would cross over to a mass audience of the sort of people that listen to New Age, Gregorian chants, and Enya. But Within catches them at the perfect median point between the crypt and the chill-out zone.


Lonely Is An Eyesore

 A prodigious feat of self-celebration from a label then at its zenith of eminence, this compilation of new tracks specially recorded by the 4AD roster came sumptuously packaged in an over-the-top style last seen with Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. The standard issue came as a lavishly designed cardboard case with a three-way folding inner sleeve, but there was also a limited edition of wooden boxes containing deluxe prints. Sonic contents wise, it’s a curate’s egg, ranging from the slight to the sublime. Colourbox’s “Hot Doggie” is  brash dance-rock decorated with movie soundbites, loud and trivial,  while “Cut the Tree” is a typical slice of The Wolfgang Press’s brand of failed pretentiousness. But Dead Can Dance’s two offerings “Frontier” and “The  Protagonist” are bewitching moodscapes, Cocteau Twins’ radiant “Crushed”  is one of their best songs ever, and  “No Motion” is Dif Juz at their most dynamic,  crashing chords scattering shards of dazzle hither and thither. Best of all is “Fish” by one of the truly unique groups of the late Eighties, Throwing Muses. David Narcizo’s martial but static drums, the gyrating rhythm guitar chords of Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly, and Leslie Langston’s sidling bass create a strange feeling of suspended motion last heard in rock on Led Zep’s “Four Sticks”, as though you’re stuck on a treadmill or struggling in quicksand. Her voice midway between a Stevie Nicks croon and a Gaelic pagan ululation, Hersh sings what appears to be a love song--“I have a man/he follows my hips with his hands… He follows my lips with his melting eyes”--although with a lyricist as wayward as Kristin you can never be sure. One of the song’s more opaque verses--“lonely is as lonely does/lonely is an eyesore/the feeling describes itself”--provides the compilation’s name.


Blue Bell Knoll

It’s so hard to pick a Cocteau Twins album as the One. Head over Heels is their early classic, and EPs like Sunburst and Snowblind, The Spangle Maker and Love’s Easy Tears are mid-period highs. Still, Blue Bell Knoll is their most flawless record, and also the one that’s the most approachable for virgin listeners while still retaining the group’s bottomless mystery. You can hear a smidgeon of Kate Bush on the title track opener, but Fraser soon sheds all ancestral traces to assert her candidacy as one of the five or six most original vocalists of the rock era. Likewise the group, having started out as a sort of soft-core Siouxsie & the Banshees, now mature into a sound without parallel or peer. Lindsay Buckingham to Liz’s Nicks, spangle-maker Robin Guthrie drapes his lover in iridescent canopies of guitarstuff. Fraser’s sculpted gush of liquidized language is almost entirely indecipherable but always sounds rich in wholly private, non-verbalisable meaning.  Sometimes these sweet nothings seem like songs for swooning lovers, sometimes they seem literally like baby-talk, making you imagine an Eskimo mother chirruping to her newborn. The Cocteaus struggled after this album:  when you’ve made songs as sublime as “Carolyn Fingers,” ‘Cico Buff” and “Ella Megablast Burls Forever”  what do you do for an encore? They made a mistaken pop-wards move, with Fraser singing first in better enunciated gibberish and then in distinctly plain English. She said so much more when you couldn’t understand a word.



Combining the raw power of The Stooges with a penchant for all-American grotesquerie reminiscent of David Lynch, Pixies seem like an unlikely match for 4AD . But they were an arty group. Singer and main songwriter Black Francis cited the Surrealists as his big crush, and gave them the nod in Doolittle’s opener “Debaser”, the lines “Slicing up eyeballs” and “I am un chien Andalusia” paying homage to the Luis Bunuel film. Given his Charismatic Pentecostal background, it makes sense that Pixies music would be a valve for Francis to vent all his repressions in a "stream of unconsciousness" (as he put it).  His lyrics seethed with images of self-mutilation, incest, sleaze, "broken faces" and bodily fluids.  The title Doolittle, from the children’s books about the doctor who learns to talk to the animals, suggests the Freudian notion of man as “the sick animal”, sick precisely because he cannot accept his own bestialism. Songs like the gorgeously fatalistic “This Monkey’s Gone To Heaven”, “I Bleed” and “Hey”  bore witness to Francis’ grim fascination with the bare necessities and base fatuities that comprise the biological facts of life: sex, birth, excretion, death. “Hey” grimly notes that “uh” is the sound people make when they fuck, give birth, take a dump, and concludes “we’re chained”. Others like the rampant “Tame” and heavy-breathing “Dead” revel in the nitty-gritty of nookie. Following hard on the heels of the group’s rabid opening salvo Come On Pilgrim and ragged classic Surfer Rosa, this album was Pixies’ peak. After this they veered off into a lighter-and-cuter pop direction, as if scared by the dark voids they’d glimpsed on Doolittle.



Where Pixies and Throwing Muses brought something new to 4AD, His Name Is Alive seem transparently to be that rare thing: the American 4AD obsessive, purposefully endeavoring to make music to caress Ivo’s ear-drums.  His Name Is Alive is essentially a solitary obsessive, Warren Defever, who draws on a fluctuating cast of accomplices to help realise the noises in his head.  Those sounds have a spidery exquisiteness that couldn’t be further from the late Eighties/early Nineties Amerindie norm. The vibe of Livonia (which sounds like a fantastical imaginary land but is named after Defever’s hometown in Michigan) is very much the reclusive studio-whiz alone with his sound-warping boxes. If the effect is sometimes overly precious and forced in its faux-mystery, the culprit is often singer Karin Oliver, who sometimes entrances like such shoulda-been-on-4AD ethereal girls as Cranes’ vocalist Alison Shaw and Shelleyan Orphan’s Caroline Crawley, but often merely grates with her wavery shrillness. Still, Defever’s menagerie of strange processed noises and aberrant guitar parts generally keeps things diverting.


Joy 1967-1990

Signing New York indie rocker Kurt Ralske was another example of 4AD stretching beyond its usual parameters. His music as Ultra Vivid Scene had far more in common with the Sixties-referencing meta-rock of the Jesus & Mary Chain and Spacemen 3 than with the Cocteaus or Dead Can Dance. Like the Spacemen especially, Ralske’s songs play clever games with the language of love, drugs, and religion, equating them as expressions of a human ache to fill the hole at the heart of being with a holy absolute--the sweetest girl, the perfect prescription, God’s grace.  At its least, it’s like Matthew Sweet with hipper reference points, both musically (Velvet Underground, Suicide) and philosophically (Barthes, Bataille). But at its most--“Guilty Pleasure”, “Extra Ordinary”--it’s reminiscent of Prince in his neo-psychedelic mode.  The opening triptych of “It Happens Every Time”, “Staring At the Sun” and “Three Stars” makes for an irresistible salvo of swashbuckling psych, while “Special One,” featuring Pixie Kim Deal’s wonderfully carefree backing vocals, feels as euphoric as mainlining helium.


The Comforts of Madness

Shoegaze was an obvious fit for 4AD--after all, many of these British bands were inspired by the label’s groups, especially Cocteau Twins and AR Kane.  If Lush were 4AD’s shoegaze-as-pop gambit, Pale Saints were the artier proposition, making music that was dense, at times overwrought, but always interesting. The name “Pale Saints” fits them to a tee. Ian Masters’ blanched vocals have a pure-of-spirit, devotional quality, resurrecting that monk-like quasi-Gregorian chant style introduced by British psychedelic groups like Tintern Abbey. Riddled with imagery of nature and the elements, songs like “Language of Flowers” hark back to the Romantic poets Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley. “Sea of Sound” sounds like the missing link between Neu!’s “See Land” and Flying Saucer Attack’s Distance, conjuring mind eye’s images of a pink-and-gold cirrus-streaked skyline at dusk. “A Deep Sleep For Steven” is a cavern of a ballad, its walls daubed with mercury-splash guitar and echoing to the rumble of drums from some remote interior cavity. And “Little Hammer” is a delightful neo-psychedelic oddity, the sepia-tinted melancholy of what sounds like a ghost-town’s out-of-tune piano (but is more likely a hammered dulcimer) offset by incongruously vivacious percussion.


The Drift

Ivo first approached his hero Scott Walker back in the mid-Eighties, asking him to sing on the second This Mortal Coil album Filigree & Shadow. Nothing came of it, but perseverance obviously pays off eventually, because twenty years later 4AD got to release the legendary balladeer’s comeback album The Drift. Walker’s four astonishing solo albums of the late Sixties showed that he was a kind of cinematographer of sound, using intricately detailed orchestration, opaque-but-vivid lyrics, and his elegantly anguished voice to paint the kind of motion pictures that scar your memory and fill the immediately subsequent days after viewing with a vague feeling of disquiet. With The Drift, the 63 year old Walker clearly aimed to make a work on a par with the great European modernists of film, directors like Bergman, Pasolini, Resnais. Accordingly the themes are heavy, verging on ponderous (songs about the gruesome execution by mob of Mussolini and his lover, about twilight-era Elvis conversing with his dead twin Jesse) while the execution is challenging for artist and listener alike, involving bizarre gambits like pounding sides of dead meat for percussion, horns that caw bleakly like crows, harrowingly atonal string parts, and sundry mis-shapen noises. The lyrics that issue from Walker’s peerless mouth--“the slimy stars,” “nose holes caked in black cocaine”--evoke atmospheres of grotesquerie and malaise. From the “curare!” chorus of “Jolson and Jones” (a reference to a poison that causes suffocation through muscular paralysis) to the hair-raising demonic laughter that erupts in “The Escape”, The Drift makes Radiohead’s Kid A look like a walk in an extremely sunny park. It is a powerful album but one that is easier to admire than to love. The Drift may not get that many repeat plays but, like one of those great European modernist films, it’s something you’ll want to experience at least once.

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