Few record labels have maintained as focused a roster of artists as England's 4AD, whose sonic trademark has been amorphous, ambient, and Gothic pop music as epitomized by such groups as Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance. Yet 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell's pet project This Mortal Coil, a sort of 4AD supergroup with rotating players, may have most fully represented his label's eclectic cast. Like This Mortal Coil, Watts-Russell's new project The Hope Blister offers homogenized cover songs written by like-minded artists, ranging from Cranes to John Cale. But this time around, the band sticks to one line-up and, most notably, one singer. This Mortal Coil was in part defined by the different vocalists who graced the group's three albums; Louise Rutkowski was one of them, and her voice helps cohere …smile's OK, another dreamy and drifting exploration of Watts-Russell's roots and influences. In some ways, the artists covered are more interesting than the final results, as they either already fit into Watts-Russell's mold ("Dagger" was written by Slowdive and Mojave 3 man Neil Halstead; "Only Human" is by Heidi Berry) or have such distinct personalities that the 4AD treatment robs them of some of their character (Chris Knox's "Outer Skin," John Cale's "Hanky Panky Nohow"). The best results, unsurprisingly, are songs that somehow strike a balance between the two extremes. Brian Eno's gorgeous "Spider And I," which in its original form is nearly subliminal thanks to Eno's ambient understatement, is performed with a little more conviction, while David Sylvian's "Let The Happiness In" is given an eerie treatment that nicely complements the former Japan frontman's own version. Like many 4AD releases, …smile's OK sounds like it was recorded in a dark and empty cathedral, yet the music, even when soaked with studio effects, generally remains true to the original songs. The results, though strictly peripheral, are oddly comforting rather than merely spooky.
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