Various Artists – C90
Released 21st February 2020
The C86 series rolls into a new decade with this compilation of UK indie pop’s highs from 1990, featuring the Las, Manic Street Preachers and the Charlatans along with many others……LTW’s Ian Canty delves deep into the “year of the half-baked genre tag”…..
By this point of time, with Cherry Red having spun C86 on a full four years, what we have now is more in the line of a wider survey of British indie music than the original spirit of that first compilation tape. The NME C86 cassette documented much of what was vital in the jangly and the extraordinary of that year, but the passing of time had rendered that a historical document by the 90s. So opening up the scope a little is a necessary move, as UK indie had changed appreciably over those few years and because of that there was certainly a heap of different stuff to get your teeth into, as is demonstrated through the course of C90. But there’s still enough winsome pop too, even though it doesn’t always hold the upper hand as before.
Right from the start there is no mistaking that 1990 was the year of baggy, with the first eight bands showing signs of the “there was always a dance element to our music” mindset. A great deal of that style hasn’t stood the test of time very well, but some of the selections here actually benefit from the distance the passing of the years allows. For example, Northside’s My Shining Star now sounds like a charming piece of jangly pop, with only a faint hint in the shuffling rhythm of their Madchester roots and the Charlatans’ Polar Bear shows a depth and quality that marked them out from the chancers.
Despite sharing the same locale as the baggy innovators the marvellous World Of Twist stood apart from them, with their track here The Storm being the first hint of something very special indeed. They never really got the success they were due, which is a damn shame, a band well worth investigating if you like what you hear. St Etienne’s version of Neil Young’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart might sound a little tinny compared to their later work, but Moira Lambert pulls out a great vocal performance and it was put together in a Croydon flat rather than a plush studio.
It has to be said that 1990 was also probably the year of the half-baked genre tag, when the music press seemed to cook up a new and clumsy name for vague groupings of bands on a weekly basis. Often it did the artists no favours at all and in the main everything was forgotten about a month or so later, as the inkies moved on to something else. For instance, Slowdive’s ghostly psychedelic drone pop on Avalyn I sounds a great deal more interesting and cool than merely gazing at one’s own footwear. The second half of disc one has more bands tarred with the shoegaze brush and most of them offer something more that the dour moping and self-immersion that term hints at.
One of 4AD’s new hopes the Pale Saints cook up the ultra-fresh rush of Half-Life, Remembered. Here they sound a little like a very riffy, song based Durutti Column, which is not a bad thing at all. Labelmates Lush also provide something different, with the heady dreamscape of Thoughtforms. Chapterhouse’s near static fuzz of Something More (Ambient Version) possesses a weird beauty, but between the two aforementioned genre tags more traditional sounding indie pop rears up, most obviously on the Sundays’ “Cocteau Twins meets the Smiths” debut single Can’t Be Sure. This is probably the best disc of the three presented here and ends with the “Stop The Pigeon” sampling, neatly r&b-tinged Please Let Me Go by the One Little Indian signees Popinjays.
Disc two of C90 commences with the Manic Street Preachers’ New Art Riot. Taking into account I’m not a rabid Manics fan, this first single with Richey Edwards, originally released on Damaged Goods, launches things on this platter on a very exciting note. It also provides a glimpse of the near future and I’m bound to say the abundant promise of those early singles wasn’t quite met by the Generation Terrorists album. Th’ Faith Healers fast and punky smasher Pop Song keeps up the urgent tempo and New Fast Automatic Daffodils mix up Wire and Josef K on their fine Beam Me Up single. The lesser known names tend to shine harder here though. Swansea’s the Sweetest Ache conjure up a bewitch haze on If I Could Shine and Mousefolk, a band truly enthused by C86, give us some lovely folk pop with their tune Crazy Mixed Up Kid.
The final disc of the set starts with the La’s Timeless Melody – you could quibble that this one is a predictable selection, but there’s no denying that it’s a cracking tune. Salisbury’s own Jane From Occupied Europe have starred on previous volumes of this series and show again why they should have been so much bigger on Little Valley Town, with a distorted fuzz and cool organ-powered drive. Another “Jane” band, Jane Pow, demonstrate a way with a winning melody in the Byrds-influenced gem Good Morning.
There’s a lot of pleasant enough pop on the third disc of C90 that didn’t quite draw this listener in. But Avo-8 offer us something a little tougher on their punchy and catchy Out Of My Mind and The Chrysalis’ My Heart Is Where My Home Is hints towards the kind of glam pop/rock Suede would take up later in the decade. The final track, Cheat On me by the Emotionals, has a nice touch of early Blondie about it, finishing things on a high.
Overall C90 doesn’t quite meet the standards of its predecessors. Perhaps 1990 just wasn’t such a good year for the UK independent sector, or maybe the selections don’t display it in the best light? I would probably plump for the former, if I was pushed. I’m sure the compilers have done the best job they could, but the quality is spread a bit sparser. Even some bands that went onto mainstream success at the time didn’t really have that much really to offer. This was a muddled time of constant “next big things” in the NME/Sounds/Melody Maker that were forgotten almost as soon as the ink had dried on their laudatory press. This meant tougher conditions for the true independent spirit to break through. Some at least tried.
Taking that all into account though, there is plenty of interest for indie disciples and lovers of the obscure (I count myself as one of the latter) featured on this collection. The set comes with detailed pen pictures of each band in the accompanying booklet and does do an admirable job of telling the story of the year. C90 documents a confusing year for indie in a thorough and tasteful manner.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here