V/A — Bills & Aches & Blues (4AD covers compilation)
Qobuz new release review (April 2021)
Historically, a “4AD covers album” has meant a “This Mortal Coil album.” When label founder Ivo Watts-Russell wanted to inhabit the world of the music that was most formative for him, he (perhaps thankfully) did not strap on a guitar and pull up to a mic; instead, he enlisted the artists signed to his label to come together in various permutations to record these songs — which he’d then produce and reconstruct in the studio — resulting in three highly atmospheric and dramatic albums that introduced a generation of indie music fans to the likes of Tim Buckley, Big Star, Spirit, and more.
In 2021, Watts-Russell is long gone from the label he started, and while 4AD is still, four decades later, nominally working in the same indie-but-also-something-else lane, it has far less of the sense of familial cohesion that it did in its ’80s and ’90s heyday. While there have been other covers compilations on the label in recent years (most notably Dark Was the Night and Day of the Dead), they have felt somewhat pro forma and not unlike so many other tribute albums. So the arrival of Bills & Aches & Blues is a bit of a pleasant surprise.
This double-album set features 18 current 4AD artists covering a song from the label’s past. With 41 years of releases to choose from, it’s not surprising that there’s a solid mix of songs both well-known (the Breeders’ “Cannonball” done by Tune-Yards, SOHN’s version of This Mortal Coil’s version of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren”) and underappreciated (the Breeders turn in a wonderfully rickety version of His Name Is Alive’s haunting “The Dirt Eaters”). The 4AD artist most represented here is, by far, the Breeders, who have three of their songs covered in addition to covering His Name Is Alive, a band one could easily make an argument for most deserving of a tribute album as the group’s wildly diverse 4AD catalog opens itself up to all kinds of interpretations.
Australian hip-hop artist Tkay Maidza kicks things off with a suitably enveloping take on the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” that replaces the original’s jagged edges with a warmer, denser vibe of electronics and abstract groove; it’s both modern and not of its time … much like many of the best 4AD albums of the past four decades. And while nobody has the brass to take on songs by Dead Can Dance or the Cocteau Twins (though a Twins lyric does provide the album’s title), it’s thrilling to hear legacy acts like Lush, Colourbox, Blonde Redhead, and the Birthday Party get reconsidered by contemporary artists like Jenny Hval and Efterklang in a way that demonstrates the label’s longstanding commitment to sonic diversity and creative freedom. And when more modern artists like Grimes and Deerhunter (but surprisingly, not St. Vincent) are reworked by descendants like Dry Cleaning, Helado Negro, and Aldous Harding, it shows that, while 4AD may not evoke the same sense of continuity and interconnectedness it did in the days of This Mortal Coil, it’s still one of the most interesting indie labels around. © Jason Ferguson/Qobuz