4AD: Bills and Aches and Blues!

New music rarely gets me hopping up and down in excitement. I am old. On the older end of the Generation X’ers. I am in the morass of stolid middle age where I prefer to live in past glories. I occasionally listen to new rap and hip hop. It is the only new musical genre that excites me. I prick my ears up for Kanye, or Kendrick, they are the poets of our time, but apart from Big Thief I don’t keep an eye out for anything new, at least not with any kind of enthusiasm.

Big Thief is to blame for my noticing this delight of a record. I was listening to Lenker’s Little Desk recording, and swooning over Zombie Girl, when I saw a cover of The Breeders “Off You” by Big Thief in my recommendations.

So here is the buzz. 4AD used to be Axis Records when they first released a batch of recordings in 1980. Unfortunately they soon found there was another Axis Records, so needed a new name to distinguish their stable of artists from the “other Axis.” Cue jokes about evil axis’s and come to the bright side. A flyer that had been distributed for the launch of the label had the following cryptic lines printed on it:

1980 FORWARD
1980 FWD
1984 AD
4AD

And so 4AD was born. 41 years later the boys and girls at 4AD decided clearly to do some well deserved promotion after all that hard work and success, and ask their current artists to cover a song from the label’s past. Lucky them! What a choice they had!

The Pixies! The Breeders! Throwing Muses! Bauhaus! Red House Painters…The Birthday Party…The The! The backpages list goes on in a snapshot of ’80s and ’90s glory. In short As soon as I worked out what this release was all about I knew it was going to be a blast.

01. Tkay Maidza – ‘Where Is My Mind?’ (Pixies)
02. U.S. Girls – ‘Junkyard’ (The Birthday Party)
03. Aldous Harding – ‘Revival’ (Deerhunter)
04. The Breeders – ‘The Dirt Eaters’ (His Name Is Alive)
05. Maria Somerville- ‘Seabird’ (Air Miami)
06. Tune-Yards – ‘Cannonball’ (The Breeders)
07. Spencer. – ‘Genesis’ (Grimes)
08. Helado Negro – ‘Futurism’ (Deerhunter)
09. Efterklang – ‘Postal’ (Piano Magic)
10. Bing and Ruth – ‘Gigantic’ (Pixies)
11. Future Islands – ‘The Moon Is Blue’ (Colourbox)
12. Jenny Hval – ‘Sunbathing’ (Lush)
13. Dry Cleaning – ‘Oblivion’ (Grimes)
14. Bradford Cox – ‘Mountain Battles’ (The Breeders)
15. SOHN – ‘Song To The Siren’ (Tim Buckley) 
16. Becky and The Birds – ‘The Wolves Act I and II’ (Bon Iver)
17. Ex:Re – ‘Misery Is a Butterfly’ (Blonde Redhead)
18. Big Thief – ‘Off You’ (The Breeders)

I know people who buy music like to listen not read, so I’ll try and not keep you from doing so much longer. If you are looking for a retro punk loud and hard edged pogo fest this is not the album you are looking for. If you are interested in what happens when new artists get to explore the back catalogues of bands they don’t immediately have a lot in common with, and dig electronica dreamscapes, hyper-reverb vocals, and some deliriously crazy takes on things you already love, you won’t want to miss out on this.

4AD do their job – they want to drag us, the listener, into their newer bands in their illustrious stable, and use their established big names to do so. It isn’t a crime to promote new artists, and this is exactly the way to do it. The punter gets some new material to listen to, and perhaps a new favorite band to follow, the completist will always love a good covers album, and the river flows both ways. Maybe Grimes fans will discover something older they love from the past. In fact if they could persuade Grimes to do a cover of Bauhaus’s Bela Lugosi’s Dead I would be overjoyed. If I was in 4AD’s stable and saw this huge push of their newer material I would be comforted and feel supported: This is clearly a label that cares about their artists.

The compilation kicks off with a perfectly crazy, slightly heavy, trippy electronica version of Where is My Mind, a cacophony of reverb and empty stadium vocals, compressed to within an inch of it’s life, and these vocals loves this treatment: and so do I. I can’t overstate how difficult this is to do. I am a fussy customer and The Pixies are one of my favorite bands; and not only that, I love this song. This is the anthem for a lost generation of slackers. Where is my mind, baby? “Out in the water, see it swimming.” This is part of our cultural lexicon, and I was ready to come out with the long knives and cut and dice, baby. I’m glad to say I can’t do it. It is a triumph.

In my list of special mentions, the instrumental cover of The Pixies song, Gigantic, by Bing and Ruth. By the time I had stopped waiting for the vocals to kick in, I was glad they didn’t. Virtuoso performance.

Dry Cleaning covers the Grimes song, Oblivion. It is just far enough away from the original, just cray cray enough to be a homage not a rip off, whilst making you press the replay button. I clearly need to listen to more Grimes.

Efterklang’s cover of Postal by Piano magic. This might be my favorite thing on the album. Seriously. Shades of Syd Barrett meet The Books. Lo-fi tinny electronica played on what sounds like a cell phone keyboard, with just off kilter vocals to bring the whole together in a glorious morass of old school kitsch psychedelia. This is whimsy for the 21st century. I am rushing off to listen to everything Efterklang ever recorded. If I could give out awards, they would get The Paltry Sum Dee Dee Ramone Award, pat yourselves on the back, well done Efterklang! You did great.

Future Island’s cover of The Moon is Blue by Colorbox is moreish and lush. You can smell summer on this track. Another success.

Big Thief’s cover of The Breeders song Off You. What can I say! I am a fangirl. This band can’t put a foot wrong. It is perfect.

Now, if we can just get this one to sell well enough for a round two, I have some suggestions. I would love to hear Big Thief get wild and edgy, let Lenker loose with that Collings electric hollow body guitar of hers that I so covet, and do Red Right Hand and show Cave how psycho is done. Bing and Ruth would gel so perfectly with The Red House Painters. In fact I have a million useless suggestions, but lets say I am keeping my fingers crossed that this is a huge success and we get a volume two in the not so distant future.

14 Comments

  1. Ruth

    4AD’s designer was Vaughan Oliver – some say (I say) the greatest album cover designer ever. He died a couple of years ago having turned a generation of graphics students into Vaughan clones. I’d have been entirely happy if his exquisite blend of originality, control and aesthetic hapchance had remained the only permissible approach to cover design forever. His best work makes me weak at the knees. Unfortunately the music left me cold, I was already too old and set in my ways. But the images, oh the images! Hope this link works: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/dec/30/vaughan-oliver-album-sleeve-design-4ad-label-pixies-cocteau-twins

      1. The Paltry Sum

        Lol…it would appear you are always good for a pleasant pun and play on word sounds! I hadn’t listened to it for years until this morning, when it struck me as the perfect fit! It is just as exciting now as it was then, almost as outrageous!

  2. nickreeves

    ps. also, this mortal coil’s ‘it’ll all end in tears’ being a big favourite at work in, oh, dear me, nearly 40 years ago!? (surely some mishtake – ed) x

  3. thefortnightlyplaylist

    I had heard something about this compilation on the radio, but didn’t know much about it. I was gathering some new music for my post next week, and realized several artists I like had new singles out with almost the exact same artwork. Well, obviously that meant there was a compilation, and I put it all together. Ah, this is a great collection. So many great artists here.

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