Why 4AD Is An Age-Defying Record Label

words fae tilly o’connor (@tilly_oconnor)

4AD is the independent record label responsible for bringing us genre-defining acts such as The Cocteau Twins and The Pixies, to boundary-pushing modern artists such as Daughter and Grimes.

The label was founded in 1980 by friends Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent, with financial backing from Beggars Banquet, a record store chain the pair worked for. Throughout the 80’s the British based label gained a reputation for backing trailblazers. Watts-Russell loathed all things trendy and “pop”, (despite being home to the first independently released No 1 single, M/A/R/R/S’ Pump Up The Volume, in 1987) and instead favoured musicians that reflected his own idiosyncratic worldview.

Through the works of company album cover designer Vaughan Oliver, the label curated a mysterious and enticing public image, which is often considered to be “goth/ethereal”. This notion irks Watts-Russell to this day, speaking with Mark Aston he said, “I was just responding to things I enjoyed, that I emotionally connected to, that had possibilities.

In fact, what the founders loved most about the label’s name was its lack of ideology and precise meaning, almost directly juxtaposed to Manchester’s
Factory Records. It could be whatever they, or indeed you wanted.

From the point of view of current 4AD artist Claire Boucher, AKA Grimes, “If the music industry is The Simpsons, 4AD is Lisa. She’s not the most popular person in the family but the cool, intelligent, subversive one. 4AD don’t sign buzz bands, they’re super-tasteful instead, and often distinctively feminine.” To this day, the label has signed a higher percentage of female artists than any other independent.

Another aspect of 4AD’s appeal was its musical collective This Mortal Coil. Quoting the label’s website:

This Mortal Coil was not a band, but a unique collaboration of musicians recording in various permutations, the brainchild of 4AD kingpin Ivo Watts-Russell. The idea was to allow artists the creative freedom to record material outside of the realm of what was expected of them; it also created the opportunity for innovative cover versions of songs personal to Ivo.

The group’s cover of Song to the Siren by Tim Buckley, with Elizabeth Frazer of the Cocteau Twins on vocals, peaked at number 66 on the UK charts and spent 101 weeks in the UK indie charts. This song among many others from the label has gone on to be used in film and TV soundtracks (Lost Highway, The Lovely Bones, Texas Chainsaw Massacre) no doubt because of its deeply haunting qualities.

Top 5 4AD artists


Build on a teenage friendship between two Londoners Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson, Lush formed in 1987 and were one of the first groups to be given the label “Shoegaze”. Their track Ladykillers is a not so subtle dig at Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, who Berenyi met when playing Lollapalooza.

4. Bauhaus

Despite eventually being dropped by the label for covering a T-Rex song which Watts-Russell reportedly despised, Bauhaus are hugely responsible for the gloomy, gothic reputation 4AD just can’t seem to shake. Their debut single Bela Lugosi’s Dead remained in the UK independent charts for a whopping two years and got them substantial airplay on Radio One’s John Peel show despite it being over nine minutes long.

3. Grimes

 Grimes is signed to both 4AD and Montreal Based Arbutus Records. Her work is much more electronic and, dare say, more pop than most acts associated with the label, which is probably why she’s their most commercially successful signing in modern years. At its core, however, her music has the same emotional charge and surging possibilities as any 80’s doom-monger.

2. Pixies

 The group had recorded a $1000 demo, which was initially overlooked by 4AD for being too “Rock n Roll”. Label boss Ivo Watts-Russell was at first reluctant to work with American artists, but changed his mind following some persuasion from his girlfriend who loved the band.

1. The Cocteau Twins

 The Grangemouth trio are quintessential 4AD. Inspirational, yet never once copied, The Cocteau Twins are the exact sort of “trailblazers” sought out by the label bosses of past and present. Robin Guthrie’s infinite soundscapes coupled with Elizabeth Fraser’s soaring soprano vocal that at times abandons language altogether is a perfect combination. Listening to a Cocteau Twins record is like traveling to a different country or planet for the first time, and drinking in the culture in simple, visceral, primal ways.



Chvrches are back and they’re poppier than you’ve ever heard them before

Words by Tilly O’Connor (@tilly_oconnor)

On their third LP, Scottish synth pop trio Chvrches enlisted the help of producers Steve Mac (Ed Sheeran, Little Mix, Shakira) and Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen, Katy Perry, Sia). Where the group have held onto elements of their indie pop beginnings in the past, this record seems to be a bold attempt to enter the mainstream. Despite their international success, Chvrches are yet to secure a top ten hit.

On Love Is Dead, they tackle topics broader than the inner workings of a relationship, with track Graves taking the refugee crisis head on, and My Enemy featuring the National’s Matt Berninger looking at the nature of modern political discourse online. Singer Lauren Mayberry has been vocal on matters such as feminism and online abuse, so it’s interesting to find these themes in her music.

Opening track Graffiti is classic Chvrches. They have always sat just ahead of the curve when it came to the direction indie pop is heading, however this is closer to their older work. It’s electrifying as it builds, with Mayberry’s vocal melodies crashing in unexpected and delightful ways. It sounds like that intangible hazy memory of youth, or maybe even just last summer. On the refrain she coos that “we never will” grow old, as synths buzz behind her like the fizz of a cola bottle. It’s a stunning opener, and sets out ideas of abandonment and joy, tinged with melancholy and realism.

Second track Get Out opens with harsh, hard synths, the likes of which probably not heard since… Well since the last Chvrches record. Its a slow burning pop song, which I suppose is quite en vogue. It has such a naughties vibe, reminiscent of Avril Lavigne when it comes to melodies and lyrics. Sometimes this is exciting, sometimes it verges on cheesy, particularly on the refrain “Do you wanna show me how you are a kaleidoscope”.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHUKKrcXfJs]

Deliverance is the first on a few tracks on the album that take on external topics. It’s a pointed take down of religious bigotry over a tropical pop song. It’s probably the strongest of their “political” songs, as it sticks ~religiously~ to traditional Christian metaphors, creating a pretty whole piece. The little layers of angelic voice synths at the end are a nice touch. It doesn’t reach a peak musically, which isn’t a necessity (look at some of the delicate tracks on Lorde’s Melodrama), but it does feel like it’s picking up, just to drop you right back down again. It would be surprising if this wasn’t a single at some point, as it has radio potential.

Graves opens with a Survive (the group behind the Stranger Things theme) synth which falls away into something much faster. It’s sickeningly upbeat for a song about the death of Syrian refugees. It is advocating for change, which you have to assume is genuine given the singers vocal online presence on the matter, but it does come across slightly shallow. It’s worth noting that it’s very hard to appear any different when talking about complex subjects in just over three minutes. Production wise it has something of a 2013 Katy Perry song about it.

My Enemy features Matt Berninger of the National. Its a cold duet about vicious words with a big hint towards online discourse. It’s moody and interesting but really doesn’t go anywhere. The lyrics are monotonous with some really overused rhyming schemes, primarily “enemy/remedy”.There’s no real pay off moment with the two singers voices coming together.  It’s pretty flat as songs go but this does suit the themes that it explores.

A track like Forever stands out on the album purely for how upbeat it is in a sea of chainsmoker-esque slow beat heavy tunes. It builds very well and each layer plays well with the other. It’s a moment of introspection with some telling one liners from Mayberry – “maybe I am just too much for you”. The synthy guitar dances sweetly around her vocals. Towards the end it all swirls like a big pool of noise being sucked down the hole in the sink.

Miracle is sonically the “biggest” song on Love Is Dead. Its an explicit grasp at Radio One listeners, that probably leaves most Chvrches fans confused. Is this an Imagine Dragons cover? It feels so unusual for them to take a song in this direction. Everything about it from the effects on Mayberry’s voice in the chorus, down to the backing vocals in the chorus (a classic “ooh ohh ohh”) is very far removed from their classic work. The only sign that this is definitely a Chvrches song is the steely synth hovering above it all throughout.

The build on God’s Plan is probably the most satisfying on the album. It’s gloomy and atmospheric in a way that the group haven’t really tried anywhere else on the album. The top end synth seems a little busy but it works if you look at the album as a whole.

Love Is Dead is a bold statement. The album however is not as bold. It’s a very competent pop record but it’s not anywhere as daring as some of Chvrches earlier work. The most exciting moments are when there are unexpected turns in the track, like the melody in graffiti. For the most part however, the record appears to be following trends instead of setting them this time around.

Sunflower Bean serve up a cheerful slice of pop rock on new LP ‘Twentytwo In Blue’

by tilly o’connor (@tilly_oconnor)rating 7

Following their somewhat disjointed 2016 debut Human Ceremony, Sunflower Bean are back with the hugely hyped Twentytwo in Blue.

Opening with 70’s chant rock tune Burn It, the New York trio set the tone for the record – old style riffs coupled with a millennial understanding of the world. Vocalist and bassist Julia Cummings shines over the music, which feels somewhat stale. Nonetheless, as first tracks go, it’s a strong one. It will most likely be going down well on their current UK tour.

The real standouts on this album are the songs that manage to marry the bands influences with stunning fresh takes on pop music. This is illustrated perfectly on Memoria, which knowingly includes the lyrics “The past is the past for a reason”. Guitars and backing vocals glow and ooze like some of Fleetwood Mac’s best work. Their influence is ever-present in Sunflower Bean’s discography but its most obvious on I Was A Fool.

The track kicks off with one of the coolest bass riffs on the record – seriously, grab your best headphones and have a listen. In the dreamy lament for a past relationship, Cummings is joined on vocals by guitarist Nick Kivlen. There’s a back and forth between the two that plays out like two sides of a story (not unlike fellow trio NDUBZ, however this could merely be a coincidence). His lines include a fleeting religious reference: “I was a fool who lost his herd”. Their previous work has included copious amounts of biblical imagery; however, TTIB departs from this, explicitly so in the lyric “I don’t need your religion” on Human For.

The band regularly succeed in providing sweet sonic escapism for those of us not living in the states, although on tracks such as Puppet Strings and Crisis Fest their efforts turn to political commentary. The latter is explicitly about the US’ current administration as well as things such as the effects of student debt. The topics are tackled head on, but this comes across cheesy at times. From the “no, no, no”s of the chorus, to “2017 we know, reality’s one big sick show”, the lyrics seem lazy. This is countered in part by Cumming’s earnest delivery, but it’s often overshadowed by predictable bluesy guitar.

The title track Twenty Two is musically mature compared to other songs on the album. Lyrically, however, some of the rhyming form sits sticky and noticeably in the ear. The repetitiveness is jarring – “We could live inside a place, where we’d never have to face, all the people who disgrace, us and make us hide our face”. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as this nursery rhyme style prose is reserved for the beginning of the song. The chorus climbs and cascades in terms of metaphor and literary references, making it a beautiful song about reaching adulthood.

Twentytwo in Blue is a conscious record. Its glittery music harks back to simpler, summery times, but the ideas brought forward keep your feet firmly on the ground and looking to the future. With Julia Cumming’s vocals standing tall on top of the Sunflower Bean human pyramid the band look to have found their sound. This record will likely cement them as important players in the otherwise vague pop rock genre.

Album Review: Could It Be Different by The Spook School

by tilly o’connor (@tilly_oconnor)

Formed in 2012 at Edinburgh University, The Spook School have spent a few years developing their sound and with this third instalment, it feels as though they’ve fully realised their potential Their LPs make up a righteous trilogy of self expression and celebration. Where previously their work has gushed out their ideas of the world, and while they keep doing so on this one, Could It Be Better? seems more introspective. Full of age old relationship troubles told in a modern way, it’s a pop record for the twitter age.

The album jumps in with Fuck You I’m Still Alive, on which lead singer Nye Todd gives a punk send off to a troubling past experience. Sombre subject matter is somehow transformed into an uplifting tool for overcoming adversity; you previously may have been made to feel small, now you can crank your speakers up to 11 and jump on your bed with two fingers up whether you’re 13 or 83. It gives the impression that it would triumphantly close any live show, with infinite repetitions of the line which gives it its name.

Musically, there are some early Lush shoegaze vibes on Less Than Perfect. Lyrically, this song stands out as being completely three dimensional – it’s self critical while remaining hopeful, acknowledging past naive optimism with a smile. It’s upbeat with soft vocal layers that feel like you’re whooshing along in the passenger seat on an open road while it rains outside. Post listen, you come away with a sense that perhaps things will, be fine.

Most choruses wouldn’t seem out of place on your twitter timeline – “I hope she loves you like I couldn’t do”. In some cases this type of lyric does come across cheesy or perhaps tired. An old pop punk trope is to sing about how bad high school was – unsurprisingly High School does just this and it comes off as a bit dated on an otherwise forward thinking album.

Bad Year tackles the relatable subject of feeling the heavy weight of today’s political and social climate. While accepting that some need to stay optimistic, they highlight the importance of letting yourself feel what your brain and body are telling you to feel about a particular situation.

Most exciting is the track Body. It’s the type of song that everyone could listen to, take their own meaning from and relate to their own feelings. It does however, illustrate the experience of a young trans person’s body dismorphia. For a band that provides a crucial voice for young trans and queer people, this really does feel like the new anthem we’ve all been crying out for. With chirpy and witty video filled to the brim with cartoons and sweet shop colours, this song speaks to everyone but feels like the perfect song for a young person to stumble upon and find solace.

The track is mastered to a radio one standard of glossiness though, despite this, most tracks keep their spikes and fuzz. While cheesy at times, it’s hard to know whether or not fans The Spook School would consider this a negative or not. They provide songs about real world issues and feelings, set to infectious melodies and riffs that make you wish they had lyrics too, just so you could sing along. Although not everyone’s cup of tea musically, the messages are so easy to get behind and relatable that it’s easy to see why the group are on the up.

As they prepare to set off on an American tour, The Spook School let you know that it could be different and if it’s anything like this, this is a change we can get behind.