Review Summary: This Mortal Coil's debut is an inspired selection of obscure cover songs and the occasional foray into ambiance. Bold, haunting and a little bit inconsistent, it's the Dream Pop album that got away.
After broadening my horizons into the Dream Pop genre most recently, I decided to give this treasure of a record a chance to shine. For those who do not know about the gothic super group here is the line-up for 1984.
For this recording, This Mortal Coil are:
and Robby Grey
The first thing I can tell you about Ivo Watts-Russell’s 4AD super group is that it plays for acquired tastes. Constantly switching vocalists and arrangement styles at any given time during a play list, the group choose at times rather obscure songs to cover. It’ll End In Tears, being This Mortal Coil’s first and most approachable album is none the less a wonderful forgotten gem. Released in 1984, almost none of this record sounds outdated. Produced in the classic 4AD sound, by washing the music over with a number of keyboard and reverb treatments. The result is a ethereal, distant yet thoughtful tribute. Those familiar with the dream pop outfit The Cocteau Twins and the medieval world fusion act Dead Can Dance will feel right at home here.
The most admirable trait of the band is ironically its unoriginality. There is a twist however. Whilst This Mortal Coil does little in the effort to write their own songs, the songs they cover are both brilliantly chosen and gorgeously executed. The best cover albums, quite frankly are those which update their original source material, whilst staying in touch with key emotions. This lends poignancy to the proceedings and coupled with This Mortal Coil’s ambient and dreamy soundscapes it also makes the material timeless.
Covering songs from Tim Buckley, Big Star, Roy Harper, Colin Newman and the relatively unknown Rema-Rema. With the exception of Buckley, “Tears” sounds like it is a relatively poppy record. It’s surprising then, that for the albums opener (Big Star’s Kanga-Roo) the super group treats us to a prominent low-key bass line, strummed as if it were a guitar part. Much different to the arrangement of the original, but keeping in key with the vocal melody, Gordon Sharp offers a much more disorientated and moody adaptation to Chilton’s tale of teenage yearning. Accompanied with beautiful string arrangements, the band with Sharp at the helm create a more adult orientated song.
This is one of the primary strengths of It’ll End In Tears as This Mortal Coil takes relatively innocent and breezy songs and reworks them with renewed energy and new meanings. The albums most famous track and what is the bands most remembered cover is Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren. This is not surprising as Siren was already a particularly haunting ballad touching up on unrequited love. Watts and co follow around the songs basic arrangement whilst the Cocteau Twin’s Elizabeth Fraser offers up the records greatest vocal performance. The result is something of a flawed diamond. Whilst it stands as the albums most instantly agreeable song, there is a sense that the group could have further made it their own. With the exception of some nice ambient blemishes, courtesy of producer John Fryer (who would go on to produce Nine Inch Nail’s classic debut Pretty Hate Machine) the cover of Siren is almost identical to Buckley’s.
After Song to the Siren, Tears unleashes a more subtle and challenging set of covers, which (with the exception of Collin Newman’s Not Me) dominate the rest of the record. Holocaust stays within the original piano melody of Big Star’s original. But this time the song starts off surrounded in tense and droning strings. There is something not quite right, and in a good way, slivering beneath the surface. Vocalist Howard Devoto comes off sounding like a weepy Brian Eno circa Here Come The Warm Jets. Yet somehow his often nervous and at times off key delivery is perfect for the songs sickly melody. Holocausts cryptic yet obviously depressing message is cemented in the songs shivering final lines “you’re a wasted face, a sad eyed lie, you’re a holocaust”.
Both Kanga-Roo and Holocaust originate from Big Stars final album “Third” the masterpiece of their small, but influential discography. Third is also the groups most ragged and distressed recording, highlighting the groups disbandment. This Mortal Coil should be given credit here for establishing structure to the originals purposely broken arrangements, which Chilton used to destroy his own groups claim to fame and fortune. As mentioned before, the super group make their versions of the songs their own whilst staying in touch with the tearful emotions of the originals.
The next two songs are relatively similar in tone. Both are much more intimate than the previous set of covers. Lyrically, Fond Affections and Another Day are also the highlights of the album. Combining just enough metaphors with straightforward confessions, these songs are both easier to relate to and resonate with thoughtfulness. Sung by an almost feminine Gordon Sharp making a reappearance, Fond Affections is almost an A cappella. What refuses it the title is a strange whipping noise which resonates through the songs complete running length. A strange yet compelling choice of instrumentation. Another Day once again starring the excellent Elizabeth Fraser on vocals updates Roy Harpers arrangement by adding a fuller string section and abandoning the originals guitar chord structure.
At this point in time it should be advised for me to tell you about the groups own material. Yes, despite This Mortal Coil being known as a covers band for the most part, half of It’ll End in Tears contains the groups own copyrighted material. These tracks are all instrumentals to an extent. Composed mostly by Watts and Fryer with them applying their usual studio trickery. Sadly most of these instrumentals become the albums weak spots. With the exception of The Last Ray, Dreams Made Flesh and A Single Wish, which features vocals from Gordon Sharp, the group would have to wait till their sophomore effort “Filigree and Shadow” to gain a better footing with instrumental sequencing. And it's sequencing which damages the albums third act. Because the group suddenly puts greater emphasis on their own inconsistent material (written here by the usually much better Lisa Gerrard) , it suddenly means the listener has to hold their breath to get to Dreams Made Flesh and the excellent Newman cover, Not Me.
This is not to say the weaker instrumentals are terrible. If you have the patience to look upon them as ambiance they do their job fine enough, but they are ultimately put to use as filler. Waves Become Wings and Barramundi occupy 8 minutes of the albums middle end. Once the waiting is over the final two songs fortunately redeem the albums brief stumble. Robby Grey's vocal cover of Not Me is easily the most instant and freewheeling of the set. It feels like pure sunlight as the band smartly incorporate a ringing melody from another Newman song, B. Robbie Grey sings here and sounds like he’s having a better time than everyone else despite Newman’s cynical lyrics. Whilst Not Me is the albums only outdated track in terms of production, it is ultimately redeemed by its refreshing pace and B’s melody. A Single Wish finally concludes the album as an epitaph. Gordon Sharp makes his final appearance delivering unintelligible lyrics except from his final line “It’ll all end in tears” echoing the name of the albums title. As the music blissfully fades out, one is left with a sense of poignancy and nostalgia.
These moods sum up the albums thematic qualities and its strengths perfectly. Though imperfect, It’ll End in Tears is an undoubtedly powerful recording, even if it at times feels less rousing with many of its songs taken individually. If you are a fan of any of the bands and artists mentioned above this may be a mandatory release. At least do yourself a favor and look this up, you will be pleasantly surprised about this relatively unknown but talented super group.