Various Artists: Sharon Signs to Cherry Red
This two-disc set comprises 45 songs that capture not a sound, but rather an attitude. These artists island hop across labels and genres and, in doing so, create vital songs worth unearthing now.
Despite the record label's name being in this compilation title, this new two-disc set is not just about London's Cherry Red Records. This collection is more about an ethos, a collection of hungry and original voices expressing themselves through independent records, one-off singles, and demo cassettes. Sharon Signs to Cherry Red: Independent Women 1979-1985 comprises 45 songs that capture not a sound, but rather an attitude. Despite being housed in the post-punk era, these artists island hop from genre to genre and, in doing so, create some vital songs, ones worth unearthing or rediscovering now.
The compilation title comes from a song written and performed by the Kamikaze Pilots and released on the Lowther International label in 1985. The song serves as a perfect meta-introduction to the compilation, as it recounts a both hilarious and melancholy story of trying to get your band signed to a record label. Over jangling chords, the song recounts sharing poetry with a romantic interest who "promised not to laugh" but then disappeared after the reading. The embarrassed narrator locks herself in her room, making demos and, when the admirer returns, she claims to be washing her hair. In a darkly comic turn, the person she loves is killed after he leaves her house and it is after this tragedy she finally does sign with Cherry Red. It's a tongue-in-cheek joke about a certain kind of maudlin music made for labels like Cherry Red, but it's also a perfectly affecting pop song on its own right, moving from plainly aching vocals to funny spoken word interludes (this comes up more than once on this compilation).
The song's pop sensibility but skewed originality sets up the collection that follows. The songs are often built on Spartan parts, but that doesn't stop them from sounding ambitious. "Hate the Girl", by Tracey Thorn's early band Marine Girls, is just guitar, bass, and vocals, and yet it plays like angular funk-rock. The charming car-lover tuen "The Jam Jar Song" blows that lean funk out into thumping soul-pop. The hilarious "Boys Have Feelings Too", by the GT's, marries old girl-group music with synthpop. Jaqui and Jeanette twist reggae beats into their own sweet melodies on "194 Radio City". The first disc is full of these wonderful pop tangents. Even when it plays its straight, with the head-on indie-pop of "Little Miss Rainbow" by the Candees, the songs feel fresh and original. The songs keep circling back around to various forms of isolation and, especially, a connection to music to escape that feeling. The radio is mentioned often, and the set plays like the most perfect sort of channel surfing, finding all these sweet pop shards that eventually form a nice mosaic.
The second disc starts by adding a bit of punk muscle. Dawn Chorus and the Blue Tits play a faithful but zealous version of the Undertones' "Teenage Kicks", which builds some crunch into the intimate pop sensibilities of the songs on the first half of the compilation. Family Fodder's break-neck tune, called "Debbie Harry", might be the most successful eccentricity on the record. It's a song played seemingly in fast-forward, but it never falls apart, making the listener sprint along with every quick-fire, staccato line. Some of these songs stretch out in new ways, like the soft, chanteuse feel of "Wearing Your Jumper" by A Craze, the electro-dub of Rexy's "Don't Turn Me Away", or the bar blues of the Cross's "Tommy's Blue Valentine". The songs find even more sonic avenues in this second disc, and as a whole the set starts to feel incredibly expansive. Before it gets too far, though, it circles back to the Kamikaze Pilots, later the Kamikaze Sex Pilots, for their song "Sharon's Been Deflowered and Defoliated". The song keeps the band's dark sense of humor -- "She really likes the band Tears for Fears / and she's got nothing between her ears" -- before the song whips up into some churning bedroom pop-punk. It's a fitting end to the set, another reference to the power of song voiced through another intimate recording.
There's a sense of originality and intent in these songs that binds them together even as they head in various different directions. Taken as a whole, Sharon Signs to Cherry Red is an exciting looking at a particular way of making music in a particular time by a confident and impressive set of voices. Time has aged some of these songs, especially on more slick pop tunes like "I Could Have Been Your Girlfriend" by Coming Up Roses or the Gymslips "Big Sister (It's Probably Better". But these aren't bad songs so much as they are dated or stale in comparison to the rest of these songs, many of which should send you off to find more music by these artists, artists whose desperation and drive still emanate from these songs, even as so many of them sound like they were made locked behind a door somewhere, away from the world they were singing to. Here, we get to see how they reached that world then, and now the world gets to find them all over again.