Articles - Features

Label Mixtape: Bella Union


In the second installment of Label Mixtape, we take a look at one of the UK’s finest ever independent record labels, Bella Union.

Initiated in 1997 by Cocteau Twins‘ founder/lead guitarist Robin Guthrie and the band’s bassist Simon Raymonde, the label has went on to put out records – many of them debut releases – by some of the greatest songwriting voices of the last twenty years.

With a implicit penchant for artists masterfully meddling in the realms of indie rock, alt-folk and dream-pop, the label won the 2010 Independent Record Company of the Year – an accolade very much coinciding with releases from Laura Veirs, Beach House and the debut album from John Grant (the superb Queen of the Denmark) amongst others.

Only touching upon their success, below is our ten-track introductory playlist to Bella Union over the course of three decades.

Dirty Three – The Restless Waves

One of the very first albums to be released in Bella Union back in 1998 was Ocean Songs, a solemn, sea spray-soaked masterstroke by Australian band Dirty Three. Produced by the altogether inimitable Steve Albini, the album – the band’s fourth full-length release – featured ten tracks of entrancing, violin-steered occasionally Talk Talk instrumentalism, perhaps best captured on the yearning ‘The Restless Waves’. Dirty Three continue to release music via Bella Union to this very day.

Cocteau Twins – Sugar Hiccup (BBC Session)

Having disbanded in 1997 – just as Bella Union was getting off the ground – Cocteau Twins, both in terms of sound and persuasion, left a massively indelible and distinctive imprint not merely on the development of gothic-rock and dream-pop but also indie and alternative music generally. Released via Bella Union in 1999, BBC Sessions spans the band’s career from the early 80s right through the nineties, proving an indispensable insight into the band’s  altogether alluring live prowess.

The Czars – Val

Originally going by the name Titanic, Denver alternative rock band The Czars released their second studio album (The La Brea Tar Pits of Routine) the same year Raymonde formed Bella Union. John Grant, co-founder of the The Czars and big fan of the Cocteau Twins, sent material to Raymonde who, after a little deliberation, invited the band to record at Bella Union. The Raymonde-produced released, Before … But Longer, is a wonderfully desultory high point for the band.

Laura Veirs – Song My Friends Taught Me

Now at the ripe age of forty years young, Portland singer-songwriter Laura Veirs was in her late-twenties when she released her boundlessly charming third studio album, Troubled By The Fire. An eleven-track release of intensely intimate lo-fi acoustic musings, the album proved unaffected and beautifully disarming in equal proportion, each listen feeling like an invitation to eavesdrop upon Veirs’ now legendary graceful songwriting touch. ‘Song My Friends Taught Me’ is its perfect distillation.

Midlake – Head Home

One of the your writer’s favourite releases of 2006, The Trials of Van Occupanter by Midlake was an eleven-track tale reciting the thoughts of an imaginary 19th century hermit. Drawing from the well of Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles, the Denton, Texas band excavated a deeply resonant, at times phantasmal collection of songs veering between frontman/multi-instrumentalist Tim Smith’s deeply introspective musings on belonging, unrequited love and family. ‘Head Home’, in particular, is a gem.

Fionn Regan – Be Good Or Be Gone

Irish folk musician Fionn Regan released his Mercury Prize-nominated debut album, The End of History, via Bella Union back in August, 2006. The winner of the Best Irish Album of the year by the Irish Independent, the record revealed a brand of sparse, contemplative songwriting evocative of the two aforementioned Bella Union artists: Midlake and Laura Veirs. The Guardian aptly lauded the album’s “seaside imagery and Celtic romance”, comparing the young songsmith’s style as a sublime hybrid of Damien Rice, Bob Dylan and Nick Drake.

Beach House – Master of None

Four years before they broke through via their third studio album, Teen Dream, the self-titled debut album from Baltimore dream pop duo Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally AKA Beach House proved a songwriting masterclass in relaying Autumnal disassociation, smalltown psychic immersion and harpsichord-soaked, decidedly lovelorn balladry. In spite of the nigh on mystical import of ‘Saltwater’, ‘Heart and Lungs’ and ‘Tokyo Witch’, ‘Master of None’ perhaps best sums up Beach House at this early stage in their career.

Explosions In The Sky – The Birth and Death of the Day

“Wanted: Sad triumphant rock band.” So read a flyer that eventually led to the formation of Texan four-piece Explosions In The Sky. Having pioneering a distinctly anthemic brand of soaring, guitar-led instrumental post-rock over their first couple of albums, the band gave birth to a million copycats the world over. Six studio albums in – the most recent being 2011’s stellar Take Care, Take Care, Take Care – Bella Union and Temporary Residence in the States has ensured Explosion In The Sky’s fanbase has surged with each new release.

Fleet Foxes – White Winter Hymnal

Probably the outright greatest indie success story of 2008, Seattle folk band Fleet Foxes released their critically-devoured, self-titled album hot of the heels of their exquisite EP, Sun Giant. At the end of the year, the album was rated album of the year by both Billboard’s Critic’s Choice and by Pitchfork. High praise from high places, indeed – the band’s seemingly effortless knack for honing luscious harmonies with  wistful lyrical content and a overall wondrous quality beyond comparison.

The Walkmen – Heaven

Having announced they were going on an “extreme hiatus” last November, New York indie rock band The Walkmen effectively drew the curtain on one hell of a career. With bassist Peter Bauer saying “It’s been almost 14 years now. I think that’s enough, you know?” Heaven, the band’s seventh and final studio album – featuring contributions from Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold and Morgan Henderson, as well as Simon Raymonde himself – doubled up as a resilient and glorious farewell. Here’s to the inevitable reunion album in 2015.

is the editor of The Thin Air. Talk to him about Philip Glass and/or follow him on Twitter @brianconey.