The venerable UK indie label 4AD has long embodied a sensibility more than a particular sound. As the label’s U.S. general manager, Nabil Ayers, recently observed to The New Yorker, even during its halcyon 1980s and ’90s, signature acts like dream-pop fantasists Cocteau Twins and college-rock absurdists Pixies had little in common musically. So Bills & Aches & Blues, a new 18-song set of 4AD artists covering other 4AD artists’ songs, comes with both a distinguished pedigree and a wide stylistic purview.
With proceeds benefiting an after-school program for children, the album exists for a good cause. At its best, Bills & Aches & Blues presents beloved and lesser-known artists from the label’s roster unearthing hidden gems with the same adventurous, borderless spirit that has cemented 4AD’s status as a pioneering indie institution. Yet, especially in the form available on streaming services—four separate, side-long EPs—the compilation often feels like less than the sum of its parts. While it’s clear that the songs and musicians here are interconnected, exactly how is sometimes less so.
The tracklist for Bills & Aches & Blues—the title is from the Cocteaus’ “Cherry-Coloured Funk,” a song that doesn’t necessarily ask you to notice the words—is unpredictable, for better and worse. It’s not exhaustive: You’ll search in vain for TV on the Radio, SpaceGhostPurrp, St. Vincent, Throwing Muses, A.R. Kane, Zomby, Camera Obscura, Gang Gang Dance, or perhaps your 4AD act of choice. It’s not a greatest-hits victory lap, either, though it opens with relative newcomer Tkay Maidza’s jubilant electro-pop take on Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” and includes a sadly irritating, H.O.R.D.E. Festival-hootenanny version of the Breeders’ “Cannonball” by Tune-Yards. (Two of 4AD’s unlikeliest global smashes—Modern English’s “Melt With You” and M/A/R/R/S’ “Pump Up the Volume”—are, probably wisely, absent.) It’s also not a rarities project, but the label’s mindset seems to show through most vividly when its artists take the road less traveled.
On Bills & Aches & Blues, 4AD’s bigness and ineluctable weirdness often meet through the Breeders, specifically Kim Deal. Two of the label’s most revered artists of the 2000s and ’10s—Bradford Cox (of Deerhunter/Atlas Sound) and Big Thief—each choose Breeders covers, and they’re not obvious picks. Big Thief’s autumnal folk-rock rendition of Deal’s stark “Off You,” from 2002 comeback Title TK, is simply gorgeous, finding common ground in off-kilter catharsis. Cox, a longtime champion of 2008’s underrated Mountain Battles, is firmly in avant-garde mode for that album’s title track, all drones and chimes, but his version is a welcome curveball that suits the strange, ceremonial original. Better yet, and similarly art-damaged, is the Breeders’ astonishingly faithful cover of “The Dirt Eaters,” an astral-folk ’90s deep cut from cult group His Name Is Alive. Ambient project Bing & Ruth’s piano-based reworking of the Pixies’ Deal-led “Gigantic” turns one of 4AD’s best-known songs into something unrecognizable. Serene and instrumental, it’s a Bing & Ruth song now, a fake-out as fun as it is irreverent.
Glimmers of 4AD’s bizarre alchemy pop up across the compilation. Helado Negro’s leisurely synth-folk take on recent Deerhunter album cut “Futurism” is a delight, as is Aldous Harding’s lithe, loungey reinvention of a song close to Deerhunter fans’ hearts, “Revival,” originally off of 2010’s Halcyon Digest. Jenny Hval luxuriates radiantly in the ethereal introversion of shoegaze trailblazers Lush’s 1989 EP track “Sunbathing”; U.S. Girls transform the Nick Cave-led Birthday Party’s 1982 Junkyard title track from glowering goth rock to their own expansive art-rock style. Future Islands’ regal baritone recasting of Colourbox’s 1985 single “The Moon Is Blue” arrives as a wonderfully convincing love letter. It sounds a bit like Arctic Monkeys in their songs-about-lunar-taquerías phase, while also highlighting the work of one of alternative music’s many unheralded Black artists, Colourbox singer Lorita Grahame.
The chemistry doesn’t always click. Dry Cleaning’s cover of Grimes’ “Oblivion,” a haunting electro-pop single from 2012’s Visions that has since taken on a life of its own, is a regrettable disaster, a somnolent trudge: The UK band rightly spotted a connection to their own fragmentary lyrical approach, but alas, this group known for spoken vocals doesn’t seem ready yet for actual singing. British producer SOHN’s cover of Tim Buckley’s modern standard “Song to the Siren”—which became a 4AD landmark as sensuously reimagined by the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser fronting the label’s This Mortal Coil collective—is silkily sung and elegant adorned, but it’s a bit po-faced for its surroundings, like it’s wearing a suit on the off chance it’ll be called on for Grammys tribute. Much the same goes for Swedish project Becky and the Birds’ strummy, glitchy, ultimately reverential update of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago ballad “The Wolves (Act I and II),” a song that came out on 4AD in Europe but seems inextricably linked with its North American indie label home, Jagjaguwar.
Bills & Aches & Blues is a frequently impressive assemblage of extraordinary artists running amok through a trove of extraordinary songs, with occasionally uneven results. If what unites them all at times feels undefinable, that’s probably the point: 4AD’s roster is most interesting when they’re exploring, escaping, closing their eyes and dipping into an ocean of swirling, immersive sound. The most thrilling and maybe representative discovery here is Irish folk experimenter Maria Somerville’s cover of the profoundly obscure “Seabird,” a 1995 song by short-lived Unrest offshoot Air Miami. Surreal and escapist, with hypnotic drones and the sounds of waves splashing, it’s a fitting 2021 successor to the reverb-drenched dreamscapes that have been inextricably associated with 4AD for almost all of the label’s astounding 41-year run.
Buy: Rough Trade
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