Cherry Red is a label for the CD collector, a format most labels have given up on with dismal digipaks and crap liner notes (if any). Years after I was “over” the CD as my go-to (plundering Amazon’s dirt cheap MP3 store instead), I am under the spell again thanks in part to a stack of Cherry Red’s sonically perfect, lushly packaged new albums and deluxe reissues.
C86 – 3CD Deluxe Edition
Last year, Cherry Red issued the year’s best box set, Scared to Get Happy: A Story of Indie Pop 1980 – 1989. The set mixed dozens of rarities from bands I love (Jesus and Mary Chain, June Brides, Wonder Stuff) with more than 100 indie rock treasures from bands I now adore. Best of all, the library-book sized liner notes told the rise, fall and “where are they now” of every band in the box.
On June 9, Cherry Red ups the ante with C86: The Deluxe Edition 3CD Box Set. How much are the chips? Do the fish have chips? Who the hell is Nerys Hughes and why does Half Man Half Biscuit hate him so much? Fuzzbox had the fuzzbox, did they ever use it? All those questions and more might be answered when the equally blessed and cursed NME cassette, C86, gets its long overdue “proper” CD treatment. I picked up the C86 cassette at Vinyl Fever in Tampa in 1987 to see what The Age of Chance sounded like beyond their cover of Prince’s ‘Kiss’. I was completely unaware the cassette spawned an entire live music scene across the pond. I was simply enthralled and immersed with the chaotic, inventive and off kilter songs by bands that Rolling Stone and Star Hits would never dare cover. The introduction to the Mighty Lemon Drops’ ‘Happy Head’ alone was worth the price of admission, not to mention this:
In the reissue — you get hiss-free versions of the tape’s original line-up; an enlightening and witty 25-page book penned by former NME writer/original cassette co-curator Neil Taylor that’s illustrated with colorful single sleeves, band press shots and crudely made gig flyers. As if that wasn’t enough, Cherry Red added two discs of bonus tracks featuring Scared alumni and dozens of other acts that coulda shoulda been on the tape in the first place. The end result expands the classic playlist so seamlessly, I can’t tell where the original leaves off and the new additions begin.
If Scared is the Masters degree of UK indie rock, C86 Deluxe is the PhD; it’s The Empire Strikes Back to Scared’s New Hope, you get the drill. OK, let’s move on.
Rachel Sweet B-A-B-Y, The Stiff Years
The twenty-something production assistants on the set of TV Land’s series Hot in Cleveland likely have no idea that their beautiful co-executive producer & writer, Rachel Sweet, used to be a pop star. I first fell in love with Sweet while playing the 45 of her Rex Smith duet, ‘Everlasting Love’, on heavy rotation throughout my teen years, presented here in all of it’s cheeseball glory:
Sweet was the teenage dream of the airwaves long before Post-Madonna America reduced its female pop stars to inflatable penis riding, Robin Thicke-grinding cartoon characters and pole dancers. Cherry Red mines Sweet’s pre-Columbia Stiff years for a comprehensive 2-CD set. The deluxe booklet by Michael Robson traces Sweet’s rise from an Akron, Ohio living room to sharing stages and earning praise from the likes of Frankie Valli, Mickey Rooney, Carly Simon and James Taylor to recording with Stiff’s in-house musicians (members of Ian Dury’s Blockheads and Graham Parker’s Rumor). Just how the someone who looked like Valerie Bertinelli’s cousin from Queens mined 50’s girl group harmony and Phil Spector’s wall of sound into indie pop embraced by the punk and new wave underground is told here in breathtaking sound and story. The Fool Around tracks on Disc One are glorious throwbacks, mining the same vibe that fellow Stiff alumna, Tracey Ullman, struck lightning with in the MTV 80’s. The real treasure is Disc Two, where the edgier Protect the Innocent LP tracks produced by Martin Rushent (Human League’s Dare; Go-Go’s Talk Show) and Alan Winstanley are presented with all of the album’s B-sides.
The Woodentops — Granular Tales (2014)
The Woodentops, essential members of the scene chronicled in Scared and C86, return in 2014 with their first album of all new material in 25 years. Granular Tales, a title inspired by “grain”, the photography term for distortion, is about the non-clarity and beautiful mess of the human experience. Rolo McGinty’s voice remains as pristine and vibrant as in the band’s Giant heyday. The songs feature the trademark guitar work of Simon Mawby and bassist Frank Defreitas and, as always, crisp percussion and bright keyboards. Tales honors the band’s hallmark sound, while sounding as modern as today’s best indie rock. Here’s hoping the Woodentops have many more tales left in them.
Blancmange — Happy Families Too (2014)
Like the Woodentops, 80’s electronic dance pioneers Blancmange returned from exile a few years ago with the winning return-to-form album Blanc Burn. While health issues sidelined Stephen Luscombe, frontman Neil Arthur hit the road to promote Burn. As he reworked and reinterpreted his classic tracks for the stage, inspiration struck to revisit the band’s landmark debut, Happy Families. Now we’ve seen this stunt before, most notably the trainwreck that was Kate Bush’s The Director’s Cut. Arthur fares much better here, though die hards will need to give it a few loud listens to clean the palate of the sounds and hooks of the original before embracing the new. While it’s sad to see the female hook, “huh”, missing from ‘Feel Me’, Happy Families Too hits its mark. In many ways, it feels like a studio-captured live concert recording or radio session. While Arthur’s voice has aged, the deeper, more worldly vocals and crisp, clean, arrangements sound right at home among current acts like Hot Chip, La Roux and Royksopp. Remixes by Vince Clarke (‘Living on the Ceiling’) and Greg Wilson/Derek Kaye (album highlight, ‘Feel Me’) hit their mark with while two by Komputer are a bit too ambient for my taste.
Pete Molinari – Theosophy (2014)
When I first saw the cover for Pete Molinari’s fourth album, Theosophy (released June 2), I thought this was yet another 60’s artifact that Cherry Red had given the reissue treatment — to be honest, I thought his hat (pictured below) was a fro akin to that “paint happy little trees” guy from PBS. Molinari’s sound certainly delivers upon that assumption. Lots of organ, distorted blues, harmonic country and 60’s rock from both sides of the pond radiate from the speakers. But this album is truly modern and a great companion piece to the new Black Keys album (Dan Auerbach guests on Theosophy). Imagine Oasis without the pretension or Jack White without the gimmicks and you get a feel for some of Theosophy’s sonic landscape. It mines, twists and updates 60’s sonic textures and swagger the same way The Coral did on their self-titled debut album and the Heavy later did on The House That Dirt Built.
Massive lead single, ‘Hang my Head in Shame’, gets the party started, but the album truly takes off on subsequent tracks ‘You Will Be Mine’ and ‘Evangeline’. Tchad Blake (Arctic Monkeys’ AM; Delta Spirit S/T) delivers another perfect mix; allowing the album to ebb and flow between uplifting rockers and beautiful, cheese-free ballads.
If you detect some Lennon-esque vocals in Molinari’s delivery, you’re not the only one. Yoko Ono invited him to sing Lennon’s vocal parts on ‘Woman’ and ‘(Just Like) Starting Over’ in her 2013 Meltdown Festival’s live staging of the Lenoon/Ono Double Fantasy album.
Also worth noting on Cherry Red:
Alice Cooper’s 1989 commercial comeback, Trash, gets an updated and slightly expanded edition, complete with Cherry Red’s signature liner notes. Produced by Desmond Child, the album featured four hits and appearances by Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, Stephen Tyler and most of Aerosmith and probably the last appearance by the late Stiv Bators (Dead Boys, Lords of the New Church).
I am saving my pennies for Strange Cruise, the CD-debut of the debut/swan song by Steve Strange (Visage) and Wendy Wu (Photos). The album was produced by Mike Hedges (The Cure, Siouxsie, Manic Street Preachers, Beautiful South) and is reissued with two 12-inch bonus tracks. Visage is a member of my “return to form” comeback club; their latest, Hearts and Knives, is one of this decade’s best electro pop albums.
Next time on Labels We Love, we’ll pour through the latest alt-country and Americana releases from Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, including gems by the Dex Romweber Duo, Lydia Loveless, the Old 97’s, and Bobby Bare Jr. (all on sale this week, don’t wait for me, snap em up!).