This is the second installment of a “series” where I’ll be reviewing two bad apples from 1986 per installment, none of which deserve more than one or two paragraphs each. For part 1 of this masochistic series, click here.
I paired a major artist with an indie artist last time, so I thought I’d do the same this time. Lou Reed, of course, needs no introduction. This Mortal Coil, on the other hand, were a teenage wet dream come to life from 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell, who assembled a dream team from his label (including Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser to Pixies’ Kim Deal) to cover his favorite songs. They produced some great results on their debut EP (where they cover Modern English and Tim Buckley to astonishing results) and their debut album (where they cover Big Star rather nicely). After that, he lost his head and started producing double albums that were mostly style instead of substance.
Without further ado, here are the worst albums by Lou Reed (yes, even worse than Metal Machine Music, which was purposely bad) and This Mortal Coil:
Lou Reed – Mistrial
There’s a moment on “Video Violence,” where Lou Reed drops these two lines: “Down at a bar, some woman is topless / She’s acned and scarred, her hair is a mess.” It’s a powerful line because the “acned” bit suggests the stripper’s just a teenager. But then he delivers this line: “While he shoves 5 dollars down her, uh, exotic panties” and I’m left thinking “exotic?” It’s a bad adjective choice that over-stuffs the line. Shit, nothing needed to be said, at all, and certainly not the Madonna name-drop in the next line. (And that’s not even the worst bit of the song! What’s worse is maybe the forced homograph in “Our good working stiff looks a whore in the eye / Ties her to a bed while he beats her back bloody and then back / At home…”). Lou Reed’s always painted sympathetic portraits of very real people around him; lyrically speaking, that was his primary talent. The characters he describes on “Video Violence” aren’t real, and you can tell he’s trying to comment about the state of things without saying anything at all.
Sonically speaking, he has other talents that he’s better known for, namely, his lackadaisical voice which created a lot of casual melodies, and his chord progressions, which were propulsive, and well, progressive. Neither are on display here (ie. the endless droning “Na Na”’s of “Video Violence”). Best/worst example: Lou Reed, at the time in his mid-40s, raps on “The Original Wrapper” (get it?), with some guitar blasts between each verse. You can’t say he didn’t take risks on that one, and it’s probably influential on a lot of bad music that I have no intention of listening to. And Fernando Saunders has a primary talent in bass-playing (which resulted in some highlights on Lou Reed’s previous New Sensations), but here, he’s in charge of production and drum programming, which aren’t where his talents lie. The whole album just took a bunch of people in a room, asked them what their strengths were, and gave them tasks that didn’t match.
This Mortal Coil – Filigree & Shadow
Not only is this double album a brutal waste of time (at least the forthcoming Blood has one or two tracks worth keeping), it’ll make you question whether or not 4AD was that great a label to begin with, especially if it weren’t for the few A-list artists that they managed to snag at inception (Pixies and Cocteau Twins), and it’s been kind of pathetic to watch them strongarm dubstep entities to mediocrity (Joker and Zomby) and sign on mediocre hip-hop (SpaceGhostPurrp), both in a desperate attempt to broaden themselves from the generic indie label they’ve become and, in the process, somehow become more generic. The oft-cited highlight “Tarantula” is available under a different title in the Harold Budd-Cocteau Twins collaboration that same year. Elsewhere, the dated 80s drums in “A Heart of Glass” (not a Blondie cover, which dissolves into boring foghorns), “Alone” (a Colin Newman cover) and “Drugs” (a Talking Heads cover, which drops the few good things about the original for a revving guitar that goes nowhere) will prevent you from falling asleep to the Obscure label approximations everywhere else.