4AD: still vital after all these years
What has been the greatest record label of the past 30 years? There are a number of contenders: Laurence Bell's Domino; Alan McGee's Creation; Geoff Travis's Rough Trade; Sub Pop; The Leaf Label ... but for my money, for the sheer consistency of quality acts on its roster, it has to be 4AD.
Founded in 1979 by Ivo Watts-Russell and Peter Kent (who were working at the influential Beggars Banquet label), the London-based indie imprint has signed a breath-taking range of rock geniuses, arthouse eccentrics, idiosyncratic solo artists, avant-garde collectives and chart-topping dance novelties.
Its golden age is widely considered to be the 1980s and early 1990s when Ivo had creative control of the label and acted as its president. In this time, he nurtured the careers of acts which are now seen as touchstones of the alternative scene: Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Pixies, Throwing Muses, Red House Painters, The Breeders ...
There were also many other artists who either fell through the cracks or operated just under the radar: singular female voices like Heidi Berry and Kendra Smith, European electro-pioneers such as Clan of Xymox and Xmal Deutschland; Icelandic indie-dance collective Gus Gus; American innovators His Name Is Alive ...
The label stood out from the crowd because it managed to forge its own highly individual identity, helped greatly by the iconoclastic artwork of its in-house art designer Vaughan Oliver, whose record sleeves were objets d'art in their own right.
For instance, the artwork on the Cocteau Twins's EPs and albums in the 1980s was as mesmerising as their music, and seemed to perfectly capture the ethereal, otherworldly spirit of the band. It was a perfect match. Indeed, Cocteau Twins even named one of their songs, Ivo, after their label boss on their Treasure album.
There was no distinct '4AD sound' as such, though it's probably fair to say that a fair few of its acts had been to art college at some point. This was particularly true of the 1980s roster. Indeed, Ivo gathered all his artists to record a series of albums under the collective name This Mortal Coil. Consisting mostly of cover versions of some of Ivo's favourite songs, It'll End In Tears (1984), Filigree & Shadow (1986) and Blood (1991), all were outstanding works that introduced cult artists like Big Star's Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, Roy Harper and The Dream Syndicate to a new generation of music fans.
The first This Mortal Coil album featured one of the greatest covers of all time in Liz Frazer and Robin Guthrie's version of Tim Buckley's 'Song To The Siren', which has been used to soundtrack pivotal scenes in films such David Lynch's Lost Highway and most recently The Lovely Bones.
In the 1990s, the label opened a branch in Los Angeles and inked a distribution deal with Warners in the United States, which solved the problem of its records retailing for high 'import' prices in America.
The continuing commercial popularity of the Pixies, in particular, allowed Ivo to plough profits back into the business to help fund his more obscure artists.
Eventually in 1999, after 20 years at the helm, Ivo sold his share in 4AD to the Beggars Group, but the label continued to release music and add new artists to its roster through the noughties. By 2008, 4AD's kudos was such that when the Beggars Group re-aligned, it transferred all the artists from its other labels (including Beggars Banquet) on to 4AD, leaving it as the sole remaining imprint.
And so, even without the guiding hand of Ivo, 4AD continues to release great music. Last year it released three of 2009's finest albums: My Maudlin Career by Glaswegian dream-pop band Camera Obscura; A Brief History Of Love by The Big Pink, who have just released another knockout single, Velvet, from the record; and Logos by Atlas Sound, the side project of Bradley Cox, lead singer of psych-rockers Deerhunter.
This year began on a creative high, too, with the excellent new album from Tindersticks, Falling Down A Mountain -- featuring our own David Kitt -- coming out in January.
And last month, Danish experimentalists Efterklang released their third album and their first for the label, Magic Chairs, a sumptuous blend of delicate chamber pop in the vein of Sufjan Stevens and Divine Comedy. Check out the unforgettable video for their song Modern Drift on the 4AD website (www.4AD.com)
And in May, the label hosts the long-awaited return of Brooklyn guitar gods The National, releasing their High Violet album.
Other bands to watch out for include neo-folk outfit Stornaway, Future Of The Left and Tune-Yards.