Various Artists – Cherry Stars Collide (Dream Pop, Shoegaze & Ethereal Rock 1986-1995): Album Review

Cherry Stars Collide is an excellent and engaging retrospective of the artists who inhabited and creatively developed the musical landscape of dream pop and shoegaze.

Release date:  31st March 2023

Label:  Cherry Red Records

Format:  4 CD Box Set

Cherry Stars Collide, is a new four CD box set from Cherry Red Records, which charts the period from 1986 to 1995, when an eclectic range of artists developed a distinct sound and musical approach, described as dream pop, often intersecting with the shoegaze genre. It was a sound that placed an emphasis on working creatively with musical textures, developing in the process music that had at its heart, the gentle, ethereal, and hypnotic. Dream pop was the name applied to this music, which also took in artists immersed in the shoegaze and indie scenes. Cherry Stars Collide can be seen as a companion set to the 2016 Cherry Red Records release, Still In A Deam, which captured key musical moments from the shoegaze musical movement.

Inevitably, with such an extensive collection, it is only possible to highlight some of the musical high points and forgotten musical gems to be encountered. It is of course, the joy of such a compendium set, that you are encouraged not only to deep dive into a musical genre or approach, but also to discover artists that you have not been previously familiar with. This is an approach that Cherry Red Records does exceptionally well. Hopefully, though this review, you will feel encouraged to embark on your own voyage of musical discovery with this marvellous collection.

Let’s start with Disc One, and the second track in, Sloppy Heart by Frazier Chorus, a 1987 single on the iconic indie 4AD label. It is a quintessential dream pop record, with a fabulous layered sound, that conveys simultaneously a sense of the pastoral and a Brian Wilson scale production. Tim Freeman’s hushed almost spoken vocal further adds to the dreamy introspective mood. A perfect introduction to some of the early classic elements of dream pop. On the following track, we meet Chicago trio Area, and their song With Louise, from the album The Perfect Dream. Languid bass lines combine with a beautiful building guitar melody, over which Lynn Canfield’s wonderfully understated, and yet very expressive vocal seems to float and ascend. Area’s music has been reissued by the Portland, Oregon specialist label Projekt Records.

Shelleyan Orphan are a major highlight of Disc One. They beautifully combine classical music influences with striking vocals and harmonies, in resonant and atmospheric chamber music arrangements. They are very well represented in the collection by Tar Baby from the album Century Flower. It is a recording full of the interplay between traditional pop and classical instruments and imbued with great melodic hooks and heartfelt emotional expression in Caroline Crawley’s voice.  An absolutely standout musical moment. Shelleyan Orphan comprised the wonderfully talented duo of Caroline Crawley (sadly no longer with us) and Jemaur Tayle. Their albums are well worth seeking out, and we would recommend starting with their 1987 debut album for Rough Trade records, Helleborine. Shelleyan Orphan truly deserve a reissue campaign for their recordings.

David Sylvian’s Pop Song, featured on Disc One, was released as a single. As a member of the band Japan, and with a canon of well-received solo albums, David Sylvian remains a significant artist. Pop Song is a wonderfully quirky track, with an electronic pulse, swirling keyboards, jazzy piano runs, all of course capped with David Sylvian’s characteristic dream like vocals.

We can’t leave Disc One without mention of the Cocteau Twins, who are represented here by Iceblink Luck, released as a single. Comprising the astonishing vocal talents of Elizabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie on guitars and Simon Raymonde on bass, they created some of the most influential music of the 1980s and 1990s. On Iceblink Luck, the way in which the musical arrangements create a soaring shimmering musical soundscape allied with a jaunty almost pop rhythmic drive, is quite simply musical genius. Elizabeth Fraser’s vocal inhabits every musical nuance within the song, and the delicate phrasing and vocal melodies are completely sublime. This reviewer was lucky enough to experience the Cocteau Twins live, touring the Treasure album, and playing the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. The ethereal nature of their music was given just the right sort of setting by the excellent acoustics of the venue, and touchingly when they were brought back to the stage for an encore, the audience had to wait for the band to rewind their onstage reel to reel tape, so they could play one of their songs a second time.

Disc Two opens with Lush’s Breeze, the B-side of their Sweetness and Light single for 4AD. This is classic indie rock with a post punk edge, and the band’s distinctive lustrous guitars and otherworldly vocals. Another very intriguing tributary flowing into the territory of dream pop. Track five is Low Sun by Penelope’s Wife, who sadly only appear to have released two EP’s, and disbanded before making a full album. Low Sun is from the second EP Potboiler for Cherry Red Records. With some wonderful jangly guitars, deep bass lines, and a lovely undulating and understated vocal, it is a real undiscovered gem. 

Breathless contribute Over and Over from the album Between Happiness and Heartache, showcasing the expressive vocals of Dominic Appleton, which seem to float over the slowly building psychedelic-influenced guitar figures. The Innocence Mission with Evensong, from the album Umbrella, add a more wistful folk ambience to echoing guitars and an elegiac vocal, providing a stunning emotional underpinning to the song. 

Within and Beyond by Drop, from the album of the same name, further develop the psychedelic influence, in a repeating immersive wall of sound, topped with a marvellously quixotic vocal. Disc Two thus provides a thoughtful illustration of how dream pop was something of an overarching term for a range of exciting music, where influences could range from indie and folk to psychedelia, all feeding into the dream pop aesthetic. 

Disc Three opens with the still active Spiritualized and Feel So Sad Glides and Chimes, the B-side of the single Feel So Sad. It is a space rock meets dream pop instrumental masterpiece, that engagingly over its six minutes plus length, brings in almost imperceptibly, new layers of sound and instrumentation. The Ocean Blue provide the interestingly titled Ballerina Out Of Control, gracefully bringing together a respectful interpretation of Hank Marvin’s trademark twanging guitar sound with a gorgeous melody and gentle storytelling vocal. A great musical find, which can be heard on the band’s Sire album Cerulean.

The much missed The Sundays are represented by God Made Me from the Blind album. Featuring the incredible vocal talents of Harriet Wheeler, this is a great example of their songwriting and performance abilities. Combining evocative lyrics and irresistible melodic hooks, integrated with a stunning vocal performance and a majestic musical arrangement. Hearing them on a John Peel session, playing tracks from their debut album, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, was my introduction to this great band, and if you are not familiar with their music, hopefully this track will encourage you to seek it out.

The third disc closes with the Insides song Yes, from the album Euphoria. Musically, it is very close to jazz, with the low swing sound of the bass and brushed drums, and melodious guitar phrases overlaying sparkling guitar chords that support the rhythm. The vocal has a wonderful sense of phrasing, such that the lyrics seem to drift through and over the instrumentation.

Disc Four closes out this collection, with a similarly diverse range of artists and tracks. Mazzy Star open the disc with She’s My Baby from the album So Tonight That I Might See. Throughout there is some dramatic psychedelic guitar accompanied by a folk-tinged acoustic guitar-led backing, which Hope Sandoval adorns with an exquisite country-tinged vocal. In contrast, Bel Canto take us into synth pop territory with Unicorn, from the album Shimmering, Warm and Bright. It is a hypnotic track that begins with enveloping washes of sound, leading into a bright dance-orientated rhythmic drive that combines guitar and electronics, and a vocal that both whispers and soars.

Slowdive return us to the realm of sublime shoegaze with the single version of their track In Mind. It offers a cinematic soundscape that swirls and ascends, with a barely discernible rhythmic pulse, that permeates the completely intoxicating mix. Mojave 3 arose from the initial split of Slowdive, and Where Is the Love from the Ask Me Tomorrow album on 4AD, is an acoustic guitar and piano folk ballad, with a striking lead harmony vocal that intriguingly reminds the listener of Leonard Cohen. 

This then is an incredible collection, with four musically very strong discs. It provides a very well-informed curation of the musicians and record labels that nurtured and led the development of an approach to music making, that put impressionistic layers of sound, musical texture and nuanced and dream laden vocals, at the core of great songwriting.  Dream pop and shoegaze were inextricably linked in these musical developments, over the period of the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, and this collection is a treasure trove of music waiting for you to discover and enjoy.

The accompanying booklet provides, alongside Frank Deserto’s introductory overview, a set of informative pen pictures of each of the artists featured. Supporting the listener to immerse themselves in the great diversity of artists showcased across the collection. The design and layout of the box set itself, by Lora Findlay, provides a vibrant and sympathetic setting for the collection.

This is a fitting tribute to the musicians and labels that pioneered this groundbreaking sound. It comes highly recommended. 

You can view the official video for the Cocteau Twins song Iceblink Luck here:

Cherry Red Records: Website / Facebook

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