When it comes to indie cred on name alone, there are few labels that can hold a candle to 4AD. For four decades, the British institution has played home to some of the most beloved outsiders wanting the freedom to make their own kind of noise. From the off, Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent's venture carved itself a niche, creating a dark and often dreamy realm enhanced by in-house designer Vaughan Oliver's sublime covers. The likes of The Birthday Party, Bauhaus, and Dead Can Dance helped lay the nocturnal groundwork, followed quickly by Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil, who gifted the beginnings of dream-pop to the world.
In the proceeding years, they've released some of the finest work from Grimes, Pixies, and Deerhunter while still championing the best new talent today. After 40 years, 4AD could have easily become a legacy label, one with edge and gravitas for giving the subcultures of the day a platform and voice - but luckily for us, they still matter. The question is, though, how to celebrate such an anniversary? Greatest hits compilations are pretty redundant in the streaming age, and the labels back catalog is so beloved and varied it'd be nay impossible to assemble a mix of tracks that would please any one fan. Wisely the powers that be have opted to let current artists cover some of their favourite tracks from the 4AD vaults; unwisely, they don't seem to have curated it too well.
Over its 18 numbers, 'Bills & Aches & Blues' sees artists as diverse as Jenny Hval, Efterklang, and Dry Cleaning tackling anthems and deep cuts by Piano Magic, Lush, Bon Iver, and more. 18 songs, truth be told, is not that much room to celebrate four decades of groundbreaking work, and even less so when some artists are given double doses of love. Pixies, and Grimes are each covered twice, and The Breeders three times to varying degrees of success. Tune-Yards deliver a gloriously frantic take on 'Cannonball, while Bradford Cox's nightmarish noise-rock cover of 2008's 'Mountain Battles' isn't much for fun for anyone. Most baffling is Bing & Ruth's cover of 'Gigantic,' a track I have listened to eight times and have yet to find a shred of DNA shared with the Pixies original.
There's still gold to be mined here; however, SOHN's cover of Tim Buckley/This Mortal Coil's 'Song To The Siren' is a thing of beauty, wisely keeping the production minimal as his voice soars. Efterklang's 'Postal' is a twinkling lesson in melancholy, while Ex:Re cranks the sads to maximum for 'Misery Is A Butterfly' by Blonde Redhead. Becky and The Birds go for a faithful and majestic version of Bon Iver's 'Wolves (Act I and II),' while Big Thief continues to do no wrong with a light-footed stab at The Breeder's 'Off You' to finish off the set. Most notable is a lack of Cocteau Twins, especially as the album title itself is taken from a lyric from 'Cherry-Coloured Funk,' but understandably trying to handle - or decipher - Elizabeth Fraser's vocals might prove a daunting task.
All in all, this feels like a wasted opportunity, one that's reminiscent of the cover song CDs you'd find slapped on the front of a mag: some good, many passable, a few questionable, to say the least. There's plenty here to pick out and enjoy, and that's all that will matter when the single songs are playing in your pocket, but after all the gems the label has given us over the years, 4AD deserved something better.
Words: Sam Walker-Smart
- - -
- - -
Join us on the ad-free creative social network Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks, exclusive content and access to Clash Live events and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.