Jac Holzman, the creative force behind Elektra Records, recollected that what he wanted right from the start was to “make a good record, and if it sold enough to recoup costs and a bit more, use the bit more to go to the movies, and if there was a big enough bit more left over, make another good record”. To judge by the label’s history, he must have seen a lot of movies. The contents of the finest ever one-label compilation, Forever Changing, in terms of music and documentation offer a model of how this sort of package should be presented. In his wry preface to the two-disc 15-year story so far of Bella Union, Simon Raymonde suggests that the 30-year survey, when it appears, “might need to be a box set”. For the time being, we have this release which, while nothing like as opulent as the Elektra box, does give genuine grounds for thinking that, ultimately, a complete retrospective (whenever it might appear) might well aspire to the same critical regard in which Holzman’s collection is held. In the meantime, this double-disc staging post is intelligently compiled and thoughtfully sequenced, with half a dozen more than worthwhile exclusive bonus tracks.
A modest, engaging couple of paragraphs from Raymonde and a concluding pair from Eric Pulido of Midlake offer a brief characterisation of Bella Union’s approach. Perhaps inevitably, Pulido’s text starts with Raymonde’s Cocteau Twins work, and his reference to the Twins’ innovative styling is always going to call to mind the musical and visual aesthetic of the 4AD label. However, the Rough Trade set here is testimony to many things, and one of them most certainly is the breadth of Raymonde’s vision over the years, since he took control in 2001; another is the noticeable lack of a single defining soundscape of any kind, and certainly not one of the kind that was often (fairly or otherwise) attached to 4AD.
Beach House’s ‘Lover of Mine’ exemplifies Bella Union’s trusting a band to develop its sounds (note the plural), rather than fostering a formulaic writing style. Beach House has been associated with the label since 2007, but even a brief impressionistic comparing of ‘Lover of Mine’ from 2010’s Teen Dream here and the Bloom album from only two years later serves to illustrate what sympathetic tending can allow to blossom. Choice of tracks is, of course, a subjective matter. Yet, as Forever Changing demonstrated so well, the finest collections are judicious mixes of the reassuring and the thought-provoking, occasionally and effectively verging on the wilfully provocative. Rough Trade has good form here. Its 2002 Rock and Roll 1 compilation from Mute offered up a delightful series of juxtapositions involving among others The Cramps, Alex Chilton and – wonder of wonders – Guitar Wolf’s crazily glorious smash-up of ‘Summertime Blues’.
Imagination counts for a lot, and the inclusion of ‘Hearts’ by I Break Horses is a case in point. The original version, the title track from the 2011 album, is a washy, even immersive experience, all breathy vocals and splashy percussion. The version here, a remix by Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowlands, is a far less aquatic affair, with a hard-driven punchiness and a more defined and a less mannered articulation. It’s an impressive treatment and one that does what these sorts of releases should do: encourage us to seek out the source material. Sure, many readers of The Line of Best Fit will be familiar with many of the musicians here. John Grant, Fleet Foxes and Midlake have all repaid Bella Union’s original faith in them in terms of subsequent critical acclaim. However, Cashier No. 9’s album To the Death of Fun passed by in 2011, and the inclusion of the deliciously strutting ‘Oh Pity’ prompts an addition to the For Further Investigation list.
In these less benign times for music on actual physical products, it is both important and pleasing to note Bella Union’s awareness of its disparate audiences. This set is available as a two-CD package but, for most of its releases, the label has what for this reviewer is the most commendable policy of including the CD free with the vinyl issue. Given the shoddy quality of many companies’ official downloads, this is something that ought to be standard practice.
As noted, the most valid test of any selection is the simple question “Does it make me want to seek out the stuff?” And this one does. Not everything works equally well. ‘Stephen’ is perhaps a curious choice from the Veronica Falls album, lacking as it does the more characteristic drive of such Falls tracks as ‘Found Love in a Graveyard’ or ‘The Box’ which convey more truthfully the band’s exhilarating collision with a tottering stack of Brian Wilson and Phil Spector vinyl. However, there is no doubting the welcome most (those comparatively new to The Bella Union Experience and those more familiar with Simon Raymonde’s charges) will give to the exclusive material. Among these, The Low Anthem’s ‘Down There by the Train’ chugs thunderously like a criminally neglected outtake from The Basement Tapes, while Jonathan Wilson’s delightful ‘Journey from Eden’ appropriately and effectively evokes the best of first time around Laurel Canyon pastoralism, though this trip is on a slower moving locomotive than the Marrakesh Express, and all the more convincing for its unforced expansiveness over nearly eight minutes. Lanterns on the Lakes’ take on Peter Broderick’s ‘Below It’ has a delicate interplay between piano, guitar, strings and vocals that gains force and beauty as it progresses with a grace and lyricism that made Gracious Tide, Take Me Home so affecting.
At its best, 15 Years of Bella Union Records demonstrates what sensitive curating can achieve with good raw materials that, ultimately, become much more than the sum of their parts. On this evidence, Simon Raymonde will deserve to have many cinematic excursions over the next fifteen years – and certainly will make many more good records.