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Ivo Watts-Russell had a really good thing going on in The Eighties: he was the founder and president of 4AD Records, a key label in the British Post Punk movement and the main label associated with the Dream Pop genre. And later, he also became famous as the leader of the Dream Pop Supergroup This Mortal Coil.
The latter came about more as a result of random chance than prior plans. One of 4AD's bands, Modern English (yeah, the "I Melt With You" guys), had been playing two of their early songs, "Sixteen Days" and "Gathering Dust", as a medley at the end of their concerts. Watts-Russell suggested they record the medley, with the band saying "no." Undeterred, he decided to do it himself and assembled a bunch of musicians drawn from the 4AD roster, including Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie (Cocteau Twins), Gordon Sharp (Cindytalk) and a few members from Modern English and Colourbox. The result was an EP under the "This Mortal Coil" name, Sixteen Days/Gathering Dust. The EP's B-side was a cover of "Song to the Siren" by Tim Buckley, performed solely by Fraser and Guthrie. The latter attracted the most praise and attention thanks to its minimalist production and Fraser's powerful vocals - it peaked at #3 on the UK Indie charts for 101 weeks and was later included on the "band"'s first album.
Pleased with the result, Watts-Russell embarked on the recording of an entire TMC album. As with all TMC material, his role was, in his own words, "a musical director" - he chiefly assembled musicians and chose song material, occasionally playing keyboards. He managed to put together a Dream Team of talented musicians from various bands on the label, with contributions from the aforementioned Fraser, Guthrie and Simon Raymonde (Cocteau Twins), Martyn and Steven Young (Colourbox), Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance), Mark Cox (The Wolfgang Press), Gordon Sharp (Cindytalk) and the only outsider, Howard Devoto of The Buzzcocks. Masterminded by Watts-Russell and 4AD's in-house producer John Fryer, It'll End in Tears set the pattern for all TMC releases: a combination of Cover Versions of cult heroes which transformed the songs into alternately moody and happy Dream Pop, plus original Instrumentals in the same style. Tears was released to a friendly reception from the Post Punk indie scene and helped further establish Dream Pop as a successful genre.
Watts-Russell and Fryer, technically the only official members of the band, next worked on a new This Mortal Coil album. This lineup included holdovers from Tears like Raymonde, Cox and Steven Young alongside new blood such as Richard Thomas, David Curtis and Alan Curtis from Dif Juz, Andrew Gray from The Wolfgang Press, Deirdre and Louise Rutkowski, arranger/conductor Martin McCarrick and Dominic Appleton from Breathless. A double-album, Filigree & Shadow saw the collective take advantage of the format to expand its musical horizons: besides the obligatory dream pop Cover Versions and instrumentals (which were more lushly produced, featuring more use of string sections), the material was occasionally darker, harsher, more dissonant and haunting, featuring more short experimental tracks, venturing into outright Nightmare Fuel and being more influenced overall by Goth music.
After a five year pause, Watts-Russell and Fryer commenced work on another This Mortal Coil album, which Russell had announced would be the last. McCarrick, Appleton, Limerick and the Rutkowski sisters were the holdovers this time, with new contributors including Kim Deal (The Pixies, The Breeders), Tanya Donnelly (Throwing Muses, The Breeders), Caroline Crawley (Shelleyan Orphan), Tim Freeman, Heidi Berry and Anne Garrigues. Another double album, Blood was very much Filigree & Shadow II, splitting its time equally between Dream Pop and Gothic Rock. Blood however had fewer experimental moments and boasted a similarly strong selection of covers, ensuring that This Mortal Coil ended on a high note.
Watts-Russell issued the box set 1983-1991, containing the group's three albums and a bonus disc with the original versions of the songs they covered, in 1993, thus marking the definitive end of This Mortal Coil. He created another project similar to TMC named The Hope Blister in 1998, but this only lasted a year. Watts-Russell sold 4AD Records back to its original distributors, Beggar's Banquet Records, in 1999 and has since retired from the music business.
- Sixteen Days/Gathering Dust EP (1983)
- It'll End in Tears (1984)
- Filigree & Shadow (1986)
- Blood (1991)
- 1983-1991 (1993) - box set
- Album Title Drop - "It'll end in tears" is a lyric in "A Single Wish".
- Cover Version - For each album:
- Tears: "Kangaroo" and "Holocaust" by Big Star, "Song to the Siren" by Tim Buckley, "Fond Affections" by Rema-Rema, "Another Day" by Roy Harper (later covered by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush), "Not Me" by Colin Newman.
- Filigree: "The Jeweller" by Pearls Before Swine, "Tarantula" by Colourbox, "My Father" by Judy Collins, "Come Here My Love" by Van Morrison, "Strength of Strings" by Gene Clark, "Morning Glory" and "I Must Have Been Blind" by Tim Buckley, "I Want to Live" by Gary Ogan and Bill Lamb, "Firebrothers" by the Quicksilver Messenger Service, "Alone" by Colin Newman and "Drugs" by Talking Heads.
- Blood: "Mr. Somewhere" by The Apartments, "With Tomorrow" by Gene Clark, "You and Your Sister" and "I Am the Cosmos" by Chris Bell, "Nature's Way" by Spirit, "I Come and Stand at Every Door" by The Byrds, "Several Times" by Pieter Nooten, "Late Night" by Syd Barrett, "Help Me Lift You Up" by Mary Margaret O'Hara, "Carolyn's Song" by Rain Parade and "'Till I Gain Control Again" by Emmylou Harris.
- Covered Up - Many, if not all of their covers qualify, but the obvious example would be "Song to the Siren" - you're likely to run into more people that know TMC's version than Buckley's original. John Frusciante also covered it on his album The Empyrean, so it remains to be seen which one becomes more popular...
- Crowning Music of Awesome - "Song to the Siren", for starters.
- Dream Pop - And you're either going to get something you can fall asleep to or some creepy High Octane Nightmare Fuel. No middle ground, unless you count their somewhat melancholic material.
- Dream Team + Supergroup
- Instrumentals - Several on each album.
- Literary Allusion Title - "This Mortal Coil" comes from Hamlet.
- Lonely Piano Piece - Quite a few, and some with other instruments as well.
- One-Woman Wail
- Rearrange the Song
- Revival by Commercialization - David Lynch arguably did this by putting "Song to the Siren" on the soundtrack of Lost Highway. It's also showed up in Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones.
- Sirens Are Mermaids - "Song to the Siren", what else?
- Tear Jerker - Quite a few, but their cover "I Come and Stand at Every Door" takes the cake.