This Mortal Coil is one of the few recording groups to give the word “pretentious” a positive meaning. A loose, studio-only entity orbiting around 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell and producer John Fryer, TMC was initially (despite protestations to the contrary) a 4AD house band, employing members of the Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Wolfgang Press, Colourbox and others. With a mix of ultra-hip covers and originals that practically define the word “ethereal,” TMC’s ultra-melancholy, virtually ambient style can be patience-trying. But when all of the elements coalesce, the group is capable of beautiful innovation.
The debut single slips a spellbinding take on Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” — the siren in question being Cocteau Twin vocalist Liz Fraser — between slabs of vintage new wave (featuring early 4AD cash cow Modern English) that have aged badly enough to warrant exclusion from the otherwise complete 1983-1991. It’ll End in Tears fully lives up to its name: slow, quiet and miserable, its centerpieces are “Song to the Siren,” “A Single Wish” and Howard Devoto’s unbelievably depressing reading of Alex Chilton’s “Holocaust.”
The patchy Filigree and Shadow is longer and more ambitious, replacing the former sparseness with so much echo that each instrument sounds like three. String sections and electronic rhythms figure heavily, and a wholly different cast of vocalists (Alison Limerick, Deirdre Rutkowski, Breathless’ Dominic Appleton) add to the near-hymnal quality of the album. There are far too many instrumentals, but emeralds rising from the ether include Buckley’s “Morning Glory,” Colin Newman’s “Alone” and a jarring take on the Talking Heads’ “Drugs.”
Blood, announced as the last TMC album, is easily the best. With much of the same crew as Filigree and Shadow on hand, the album is a more fully realized take on its style. It loses focus toward the middle (does anyone really need to hear an entire song based on a baby’s googling?), but highlights include Gene Clark’s “With Tomorrow,” the Rain Parade’s “Carolyn’s Song” and a winsome duet on Chris Bell’s “You and Your Sister” by Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly.
The beautifully packaged 1983-1991 — a limited-edition American-only release — includes all three albums (later issued individually) in their entirety, plus a full-length fourth disc containing most of the original versions of the cover songs.