In its eight years of existence (1987-95), the Bristol label Sarah Records defined a certain kind of indie pop: songs that were most at home on singles or mixtapes, tender to the point of deliberate wimpiness, anchored by trebly guitar arpeggios and hushed, reserved singing. Sarah’s releases were tiny bulletins from a cluster of bands with shared aesthetics — a position as extreme, in its way, as any in pop.
Hearing the Sarah catalogue with the benefit of the intervening years, though, reveals the meticulous craft and scathing intelligence beneath their bands’ sensitive, cardigan-clad veneer.
More than any other label, Sarah was about the art of the mix tape — most of its releases were seven-inch singles, and over the course of its existence, it released a roughly annual series of compilations drawn from them. Air Balloon Road, from 1990, features some early highlights, notably the Sea Urchins' wimp-lust anthem "Pristine Christine" (the first Sarah release), the Golden Dawn's unexpectedly rough and squalling lament "George Hamilton's Dead," and a handful of tracks by bands like Action Painting! and Gentle Despite who vanished after a solitary single.
The final Sarah release — named, like all their compilations, after a Bristol landmark — is fascinating, representing founders Matt Haynes and Clare Wadd's final take on what the label meant. It suggests a label that wasn't about a sonic identity, but about a songwriting aesthetic: lyrics concerned with the subtleties of emotional dynamics most of all, with an undercurrent of awareness of place ("Rio," "In Gunnersbury Park," "Paris"); music that, no matter how precise or scattered it might be, was a frame for fragile voices to reveal their fragility; songs with a keen awareness of pop music's transience. Sarah takes its final bow with a bit of plastic funk, of all things: Even As We Speak's "Drown," a song about the impossibility of a satisfactory resolution.
Harvey Williams was arguably Sarah's MVP — he played in bands including Blueboy, the Field Mice and Northern Picture Library — but Another Sunny Day was his initial solo vehicle, and it's become a shibboleth for indie-pop enthusiasts. (Belle and Sebastian named a song after them; Fucked Up have covered their statement of purpose "Anorak City.") London Weekend compiles ASD's string of 1988-90 singles. "I'm In Love with a Girl Who Doesn't Know I Exist" is the epitome of twee heartbreak, and "You Should All Be Murdered" is extraordinary — a song that reveals the rage underneath the twee pose of gentility, and cracks open halfway through to unleash a serpentine guitar solo.
Heavenly's second album, released in early 1992, gave the international barrette-wearing pop underground its first genuinely international anthem — the band's frontwoman Amelia Fletcher was joined by Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson for the adorable Cosmo-quiz duet "C is the Heavenly Option." Her more enduring duet partner, though, was the equally winsome-sounding singer/keyboardist Cathy Rogers, who joined with this record. And the two single tracks added after its initial release, "So Little Deserve" and "I'm Not Scared of You," were where the band first dove into the painful underside of love and deepened their range considerably.
There was a lot more to the Field Mice than they let on at first. Their name, and Robert Wratten's breathy murmur, were as twee as humanly possible, and this 1991 compilation of singles and EP tracks leads with "September's Not So Far Away," whose arrangement suggests weeks on end spent listening to the Byrds. As the album winds inward, though, it gets a lot richer and more varied — the pitter-patting groove of "Let's Kiss and Make Up" applies the syntax of acid house to rock instrumentation, and the band's heart-on-sleeve lyrics hint at much darker emotional states.
The Australian quintet Even As We Speak had been releasing singles for four years or so by the time they turned up on Sarah for a string of releases including this, their only full album. Singer Mary Wyer is a clear-voiced, chirpy sylph in the sha-la-la tradition, and guitarist Matthew Love gives her winning little melodies to sing; that shiny surface lets the band get away with a lot of deeply weird textural gestures, from the guttural interlude in "Beautiful Day" to the hip-house breakdown in "Straight as an Arrow" to the snatches of noise and spoken-word pieces that punctuate the album.
If there were a competition for "least macho band of all time," Blueboy would stare all their rivals into submission. Keith Girdler sings like a timid romantic who's slinking away from a rebuff; the rest of the group shrugs, hovers, purrs, and avoids rocking as often as possible. "Self Portrait," the centerpiece of their second album, may be the peak of their aesthetic pose, a deliberately narcissistic paean that rejects the possibility of romance beyond the self ("T-E-A-S-E the girls, I say"). It's a gorgeous record, and precious in multiple senses.
This brief, brilliant EP (also released as P.U.N.K. Girl) is the peak of Heavenly's recorded career: five peppy, angry songs about girl culture, punk culture, and the forces that can wreck punk girls. (The peppiest, "Hearts and Crosses," concerns date rape.) "Atta Girl" is a frantic breakup song, with Cathy Rogers and Amelia Fletcher unleashing torrents of longing and loathing at each other; the title track is a tribute to a girl who's "honest and kind, but in a way that people see as telling lies and being mean."
More than any other group, Brighter exemplified the sound of Sarah Records — chime and ache above all else. They never recorded a proper album, but this collection of their 1989-92 singles and EPs captured the evolution of their starry-eyed drone from pure Jesus & Mary Chain-isms ("Inside Out" might as well be a response to "Upside Down") to something that fit in with the gentler end of the early '90s shoegaze scene. And Sarah aficionados may want to take note of "So You Said," singer/guitarist Keris Howard's critique of the label's slow mutation into a commercial force in British indie circles.
After My Bloody Valentine's Loveless appeared in 1991, it spawned a little genre of its own. The Bristol band Secret Shine had been recording for a while already, but their first album, released in 1993, revealed them as enthusiastic converts: their old singer Jamie Gingell and new singer Kathryn Smith blended their voices like Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher's, guitarists Scott and Dean Purnell pushed their sound into whirring, tone-bending overdrive, and their songs were suddenly all about fluidity and eroticism. Also worth seeking out: the "Loveblind" single, recorded at the same sessions (currently in print on the Gaol Ferry Bridge compilation).