Cover of the Week 25 You and Your Sister

Licking the wounds of old high school and college romances, real or imagined, I could often be found in my dorm room at UMass blasting the first album from This Mortal Coil, It’ll End in Tears, the collaborative effort of a bunch of artists from various acts on the 4AD record label circa 1984/1985: Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, et. al. As conceived and overseen by the legendary A&R; man and producer, Ivo Watts-Russell, this atmospheric album of well-selected covers, dramatically presented by some of England’s mopiest but inventive art rockers proved a potent soundtrack for an undergrad’s unrequited loves, a sonic Sorrows of Young Werther for one disenchanted by the hair metal that was taking over the popular culture.

Lying on my single mattress under a gigantic Joy Division Closer poster, the album was a salve and made my puppy love pain seem oh so artsy and tragic; I wanted to project my image as a dark Love Song of J. Alfred Janovitz, hair down in my face, the Passion of Jean D’Arc from my Avant Garde film class and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice from my Decadence in Literature class providing a backdrop for me to act out my melodramas as the UMass meatheads and big-frizzy-haired chicks from Woburn danced to Warrant and Prince at keggers next door. Sure, I would often find myself right in there with them, but Ivo provided part of the soundtrack for my more brooding moments with his conceptual reworking of the haunting Big Star track “Holocaust,” e.g. wrung out of a Yamaha DX-7 synth as some dark Candytalk-dude baritone rang out in thin 1980s digital reverb.

Yeah, I was that close to being a goth. At certain get-togethers, I was flattered to join Chris Colbourn’s party band, a group which shall remain unnamed here to spare embarrassment to future senatorial candidates. I would sing my allotment of a few tunes, which would include the Gun Club’s “For the Love of Ivy” and, believe it or not, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Then they would move on to “Brand New Cadillac” and “No Parking on the Dance Floor.” They were a bizarre band. Honestly, by the time they had the old hippy bass player sing “Who Do You Love,” there was no one in the room who was not confused. These guys played everything.

But we were all very open minded in our 20s, so that This Mortal Coil would segue easily into the Grateful Dead. And that is the beauty in Ivo’s vision in putting this collective together. He dusted off some great old art-pop, folk-rock, and other semi-obscure tunes that he picked off of some of his favorite old records collected in his days as a clerk at the original Beggars Banquet record store around London and he re-imagined them with the then-revolutionary early digital synthesizer, the DX-7, with fresh but dark electronic arrangements. And in so doing he introduced a bunch of kids like me to songs we were embarrassed to not already know, like Tim Buckley‘s “Song to the Siren.” Oh yeah, that’s thats song from the Monkee’s movie, Head! I mean, even if you knew who Big Star was in 1984, and many of us did, it was less likely that you were well-versed in their Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers LP and less likely still that you would have chosen the halting, deconstructed “Holocaust” as a possible cover. It is an important record.

Years later, after being saved from being a goth by the other churnings in post-punk rock music on the this side of the ocean [for chrissake, I coulda been one of those sad old weirdos who to this day lament the closing Boston’s “Trench Coat Mafia” dance club, Man Ray! I am thankful for all the money I saved in eye liner], I was riding in a van with Buffalo Tom somewhere in Australia when another taste-maker, the promoter Steve Pav, was playing a mix tape and this striking song came on. I recognized the voice of Kim Deal. The song was heartbreaking, Kim singing harmony with another woman. The song was “You and Your Sister.” I asked Pav who it was. I was embarrassed to learn that it was Kim and Tanya Donelly from the Throwing Muses, as their new act, the Breeders, singing a Chris Bell song from his I Am the Cosmos record. The Breeders’ version was from the third This Mortal Coil iteration, Blood. I had rushed out and bought the second Mortal Coil record, Filigree and Shadow, but nothing could live up to the first record for me, so it did not have the lasting impact. Soon after hearing this Breeder’s cover of the Chris Bell song, however, I ran out and bought both the Blood record – which also did not do much for me beyond this cover – and, more importantly, the Chris Bell record, I Am the Cosmos. Bell’s record is a lost-and-found masterpiece, the kind of record that, like the Big Star records, you can not believe has existed outside of your consciousness — such beauty, such masterful songwriting and pop perfection kept secret?

Though Alex Chilton is known better now, thanks in no small part to the song bearing his name, Chris Bell is still somewhere back there in the shadows, much like Gene Clark covered in one of my earlier posts, and dying tragically young, without the collection of solo tunes ever finding release aside from a single, “I Am the Cosmos b/w “You and Your Sister.” It must have been this single that Ivo heard. I am sure I could do better research and find out for sure, after all Ivo was part of the label family BT was part of as well. But the whole collection was not releases until 1992, mercifully, on the heroic Rykodisk. Blood was released in 1991.

The pain is palpable, inescapable on Chris Bell’s original recording, or more specifically, recordings, as there are three versions on the CD. Each of them is aching, Bell’s vocal pining as he strains at the upper end of his remarkable range. Kim and Tanya’s version is pretty faithful by This Mortal Coil standards and, as I have noted, is striking enough on its own. For my version, I had to lower the key; my range sounds out of control up that high. I also keep pretty true to this beautiful song that needs no cover version. I had no reinterpretation in mind. I only want to sing another song that I absolutely love.

6 thoughts on “Cover of the Week 25 You and Your Sister”

  1. Bill – you’re so right about that Chris Bell album. I’ve not listened to it for so many years, but I’m going to dig it out again tonight. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Those This Mortal Coil records had such a huge influence on me back then. Practically every song on the Chris Bell record makes me want to cry. In particular, “Speed of Sound” is one of the most hauntingly beautiful/sad songs I’ve ever heard.

  3. .: Bill: First, congrats on reaching the quarter-century mark of the CotW. And it’s only April. If you keep this up, you’ll be beyond 52 by the end of the year.

    I really like this tune, which is for me yet another introduction to another band with whom I am not that familiar. This is one of the joys of following the CotW series – hearing interpretations of songs, many of which I (and I assume others) have not heard before. So thanks for this sort-of offshoot benefit.

    I think you’ve given us at least two albums of tunes. This is beyond remarkable to me, and I hope it is ok to continue to say thank you, without sounding redundantly redundant.

    Go Sox.

  4. Thanks for the post. I’ve never heard Chris Bell maybe I should. Yeah I also was ‘almost’ a goth, although I never went as far as looking like one. I remember having a copy of The Cure’s ‘Pornography’ and ‘Faith’ albums on each side of a cassette. These were pretty much the most depressing albums ever made. (Songs such as ‘All cats are grey’ ‘The Funeral Party’ and ‘Faith’ and lyrics such as ‘It doesn’t matter if we all die’ and ‘there’s nothing left but faith’.

    Anyway I remember listening to those albums feeling sorry for myself when I was 13 when I actually had no idea what real pain was or what I was in for…oh the innocence of youth.

    Great song by the way.

  5. Bill – My 1st exposure to this one was while I was cutting onions in the kitchen of my 1st post-college house, Seattle WA 1991. I had a crush on my housemate that she never returned but must have felt strongly enough to have let me into her cool painterly world. The dude upstairs writing poems to seduce 1st year Lit students with would play this loud and it would filter down the stairwell into our communal kitchen along with the mid May sunlight. I really liked that girl. This song made me ‘propose’ to Kim Deal at a Breeders show at the Off Ramp later that year.

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