[28 August 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
By the mid-‘80s, Martin Newell—the main man behind the Cleaners From Venus—had resigned himself to obscurity. He saw himself as outside of the London music industry, and was sure he’d never make a living from music. So, though he continued writing and recording with the same prolificacy, Newell was beginning other pursuits. He became a gardener, and later in the decade became a published and successful poet.
But the Cleaners From Venus never quite went away. A label in Germany pressed Newell’s 1985 cassette, Under Wartime Conditions on vinyl, and it was just one of many instances of foreign labels taking an interest in Newell’s work. It was that interest, and Newell’s in ability to fully walk away from songwriting, that kept him producing material for the band, even long after the group’s co-founder, Lol Elliott, left. This third volume of reissues from Captured Tracks takes a very deliberate path through Newell’s mid-‘80s to early ‘90s output. Though he took on many projects in this time, including a solo record produced by XTC’s Andy Partridge and a record with side project the Brotherhood of Lizards, this set focuses purely on the output under the Cleaners From Venus moniker.
This choice may limit the scope of what Newell worked on over those years, but it does give us a continuation of the Cleaners From Venus story started in the first two volumes of reissues. Newell’s work was always prolific, but as these reissues pile up it’s the consistency that is most striking. The first collection here, 1986’s Living With Victoria Grey, gives you all the strengths you would come to expect from Newell at this point in his career. “Clara Bow” has the jangling guitars and sweetly overcast melodies. “Stay On” is full of organs and day-glow pop hooks. “Pearl” whips both the jangle and the shimmer into a psychedelic sort of vocal layering, part Sgt. Pepper’s, part Beach Boys.
It’s another strong set from Newell, picking up right where Under Wartime Conditions left off. But it also points to his contrarian streak, the one developed over years on not quite getting his due. Between songs are interstitial skits and cartoon noises that self-consciously cut away at the seriousness of the music. It’s a curious choice, but more interesting in theory than in practice, and as Newell starts the liner notes of this set remembering feeling ignored by the industry, it feels a bit like sour grapes.
But the rest of the records included on Volume Three luckily avoid that pitfall. It’s hard to believe there’s four years between Living With Victoria Grey and 1990’s Number Thirteen, considering that the musical vision remains unchanged. It’s especially surprising because the four years in between had the Cleaners From Venus go on hiatus, while Newell recorded an album with the Brotherhood of Lizards project, which garnered him more attention than he intended. But just as their unique attention—they were considered Eco-Pop, because they toured only via bicycle—was blooming, the bass player Nelson left to join New Model Army. But there’s no real shift in the Cleaners From Venus sound, despite these tangents. The album’s first song, “The Jangling Man”, is one of Newell’s finest songs, with moody verses bolstered by thumping bass lines and rippling guitar layers, that lead into a melancholy yet triumphant chorus. It’s Newell’s odd pop sensibilities at their most potent, but it also sets up a pretty adventurous album, where the dark textures of “Mariette” or the brittle, Middle-eastern influenced “A Man For Our Time” or the angular “Minesweeping Memory Lane” all take that jangling man’s musical tendencies in different, often fruitful, directions.
Number Thirteen shows exactly why Newell could maintain so much consistency without changing his approach much. His success came out of developing a sound elastic enough to not have rigid borders. It could take on new hues or could reshape itself into something fresh. The other thing that Volume Three suggests is that, despite its bedroom beginnings, there’s a timelessness to the Cleaners From Venus sound. My Back Wages the third disc here, is an odd ‘n sods collection from 1991-1992 originally released by a German label in 2000. On that edition, producers went in after Newell and added bass and synthesizer and strings to certain tracks. The change didn’t please Newell, who claims he wasn’t really a part of the album’s release, and so this edition presents the songs in their original versions. Many of the tracks were recorded while Newell suffered from a pretty nasty bout of Chicken Pox, but his vision is clear as ever on the scuffed-up pop of “Arcadian Boys” or the bright hooks of “Stay Lit” or the skronky organs of “Before the Hurricane”. The songs are of a piece with the other albums included here, but although some of these songs ended up re-recoreded for other projects, these versions feel like they didn’t end up on other records for a reason. If this set is consistent, it also doesn’t necessarily have the higher peaks of the other records.
The fourth disc here, though, titled Extra Wages, is maybe the most fascinating of the bunch. One of Newell’s best strengths is faintly tweaking the jangle and shimmer of his guitar sounds, but much of Extra Wages is stripped down to just vocals and acoustic guitar. This more basic, dusty rattle lays Newell’s pop sensibilities bare in a new way, and the results are striking for their intimacy. “It Could Have Been Cheryl” feels more acutely heartbroken without all the considered layers. “Gatecrashing Oyster Park” has an extra bit to its class criticisms. There are some more fleshed out highlights here—“Red Guitars and Silver Tambourines”, for instance—but it’s the acoustic tracks here that add the final solid touch to Volume Three. This reissue campaign for the Cleaners From Venus has been an extensive one, and there are moments like My Back Wages that almost turn the group’s consistency into something exhausting. But in mapping its way through just one avenue of Martin Newell’s musical and artistic pursuits, this new volume gives us another set of complications to consider in his work. The sound is still there, despite some improved fidelity, but you can feel the perspective change and—in some of the finest moments of this four-disc set—we get closer to the man behind this glut of great songs.