Various Artists – C90

The 1990s was the rare decade that actually started on time – specifically, on April 8, 1990. That was the Sunday when everyone could go to the multiplex to see the latest John Waters comedy and get home in time to watch Matt Groening’s hit sitcom before turning the channel to ABC for a TV-movie directed by David Lynch. The underground was pretty much over, folks.

Things had changed on the musical front, too. That leaves C90 having to do without a lot of sounds that had made the other box sets in this series so enchanting. The first C86 box, for example, was easily expanding on the original 1986 cassette from England’s New Musical Express magazine that compiled guitar pop bands from that time period, covering an unexpectedly broad spectrum between charmingly twee and sweetly punk.

That mostly stayed the same for Cherry Red’s C87 and C88 sequel boxes, which focused on those corresponding years with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight. Last year’s C89, however, began to reflect a scene finding major-label attention amidst a tired college-rock crowd waiting for grunge to save it from R.E.M. and Depeche Mode tribute bands – plus the occasional New Mellencamp trying to seem hip.

That’s why C90 can promise “more household names than ever” before in the series. A lot of those names would be crushing disappointments. That’s illustrated as Disc One of this collection leads with typically meandering idiocy from The Charlatans. From there, the CD plays like any dull ’90s giveaway compilation pushing corporate product. That’s courtesy of acts like Flowered Up, Boo Radleys, and others providing shambling shoegazing drudgery.

Lush and Swervedriver were often exceptions to all that, but the tracks included here aren’t strong examples. Melodic moments from The Sundays, Northside, and The Popinjays are equally underwhelming. Ocean Colour Scene, Pale Saints, and early Spiritualized have to provide the sole high points.

(For some reason, I’m convinced that Northside were the four lads whom I eavesdropped on in November 1990 while they marveled at how their impulsive decision to form a band had brought them to a Times Square diner to celebrate a remixing job that had them suddenly thinking they might become proper pop stars. Northside had one song that could’ve made that happen, but it’s not included here.)

Disc Two, fortunately, offers groups ready to shake things up along the cusp of inevitable Britpop. Manic Street Preachers went on to UK fame, but you get other ace turns from plenty of rising semi-stars. Th’ Faith Healers, The Seers, The Telescopes, and Milltown Brothers are just a few of the featured acts that can trick you into buying pretty bad albums.

You also get lots of impressive tunes from fleeting bands that barely made it Stateside, if at all. That includes Honey Smugglers, Raintree County, and Greenhouse among a dozen fairly obscure acts. This is what the CWhatever collections really offer to the consumer. More importantly, they allow Cherry Red to cherrypick the best of the irritating Sarah Records label that somehow became a twee powerhouse despite the Egg stable really delivering the UK goods.

Disc Three continues that trick with more underheard hits that were ignored by American geeks maintaining their Sub Pop Singles Club collection. The La’s kick things off as token fey superstars performing “Timeless Melody,” and The Darkside once again demonstrate why they stood out as swirly psychos providing the grandest vision from the sprawling Spacemen 3 family. The remaining 21 tracks are more Great Lost Standouts. That includes trace pop elements from bands such as Penelope’s Web and How Many Beans Make Five, plus a number of unfairly doomed acts who suggest that shoegaze and drone could’ve endured if A&R guys had signed the right acts.

You can learn more about these groups in C90’s nicely detailed booklet – featuring a dull essay about Iron Lady Bad before turning into a series of short bios covering halcyon days. That remains an important part of the purchase even as the series changes to cheaper packaging. The stories behind the music are always an engaging look at an incestuous scene, and an important bonus to the set once you consider that anybody could work through the C90 track list (including the collection’s most obscure tunes) via YouTube.

The songs sound a lot better here, though. C90 is really providing a look back at a time when a few vital releases were forgotten within hours of their single late-night spin on a smitten DJ’s show. Most of that early vinyl probably became drink coasters for former fans waiting for Star Trek: The Next Generation to finally premiere in England that September. It’s kind of sweet that these box sets are salvaging so many lost moments that could have merely ended in memories of a Times Square diner.

Various Artists
[Cherry Red]