Oftentimes the term “Englishness” refers to more than simply nationality or one’s particular place of birth. In a musical sense it’s more a precise description, a label by which to identify a particularly whimsical style specific to those with a wry or skewered point of view. It’s generally unique to the British, a sensibility borne from the rolling fields and quaint little villages that dot the English countryside. It also has much to do with a certain tint of nostalgia, inspired in part by heritage and tradition. Ray Davies, Robyn Hitchcock, David Bowie, and Wreckless Eric are all considered quintessentially English, although it might also be argued that the Beatles, the Who and the Pretty Things fit snugly in that category, reason why the 1960s British Invasion had such a dramatic effect on the rock ‘n’ roll psyche overall. And let’s not forget those farcical wonders, Spinal Tap, whose humor was especially effective because they managed to evoke every stereotype and posh pretense the Brits are known for when posing to absurd extremes.
Martin Newell is another of those known to play the role of an English eccentric, and the fact that he does it so well may have something to do with the fact that over the course of a more than 35 year career he’s barely made a dent on this side of the Atlantic. That’s a sad commentary on his talents, especially since he’s remained consistently tuneful from the start. He honed his skills at the helm of the delightfully quirky Cleaners From Venus before eventually branching out with the similarly unfortunately dubbed the Brotherhood Of Lizards prior to making the decision to simply strike out on his own. It was then that he struck up a musical collaboration with another essential Englishman, Andy Partridge of the band XTC, an association which resulted in Newell’s solo debut, titled, appropriately, The Greatest Living Englishman, a sadly neglected classic that helped define Newell’s style.
That’s a tack Newell maintains with his equally prophetic new album, Teatime Assortment , a sumptuous Newell sampler of sorts that boasts no fewer than 24 songs on a single disc. The collection is divided into four “lagers”, but unless one takes the time to read the lyrics or Newell’s accompanying notes, the precise division is difficult to discern. The consistency is conveyed through the generally cheery disposition that’s maintained throughout, all the oddball and eccentric references tossed in for good measure. There are also ample dose of psychedelic suggestion intertwined, especially on songs such as “Ghost of Jenni Rainbyrd”, St Overdose-On-Sea” and “Saturday Games.” Consider this a good frame of reference: an imagined summit between Ray Davies and Robyn Hitchcock, with the Beatles, Pink Floyd and the Moody Blues all in attendance.
Overall, Teatime Assortment is a brilliant accomplishment, not only in terms of the sheer number of melodies but also because its entirely homegrown. That is to say, that Newell recorded these songs as demos and then left them intact. “I don’t want my inspired amateurism to be polluted by any kind of perfection,” he writes in the liner notes. Too bad, Mr. Newell. It is indeed inspired, but it’s close to perfection as well.