Until a few years ago Martin Newell had his future all mapped out. He would reside in his Essex village and continue writing his poems and occasionally releasing albums that would pass by largely unnoticed apart from die hards who remembered his salad days in the 80s and 90s.
Then suddenly a few Brooklyn types cottoned onto how brilliant his band The Cleaners from Venus 80’s cassettes were. A high profile cover and few reissues later and Newell’s musical star is once gain in the ascendancy. In an odd way he is probably cooler now than he has ever been. So in a very canny move he’s even resurrected The Cleaners From Venus name and issued his last two albums under that moniker.
So in The Late District we have a new Cleaners album, except that it is pretty much a Martin Newell solo collection – then again a lot of the Cleaners albums were just him anyhow…
No matter. On to the music. Newell’s career fits into four clear sections. His pre-punk glam rock stuff. The early Cleaners days where their 60s pop meets The Cure low-fi tunes charmed the C60 generation. Then there’s the later Cleaners and the first two solo albums including the unbelievably brilliant Greatest Living Englishman (Blur’s early career on one album). Finally there’s his solo stuff. These have been rather low-key, quite often fairly maudlin recordings steeped in Martin’s love for The Kinks and light jazz.
On The Late District we have a collection of songs that sit somewhere between two of his more recent solo works Radio Autumn Attic and The Light Programme. (Though to be fair on the last Cleaners album English Electric, Martin headed back towards the 60s pop stuff.)
Don’t be fooled by the title either. Judging by his blog the fella has been up north (Lake District/Late District), but if you are expecting a concept album about the joys of Tarn Hows forget it. In spite of its title this album is very much rooted in the east of England. Newell even has a go at subverting the odd stereotype in his track Essex Girls, which features two rather posh sounding women discussing gardening, the landscape, Canvey Island and more over some very pleasant tinkling piano. Then on the mandolin-driven uptempo I’m Moving On he declares ‘South, North or West. East is the best because I live there.’
Ultimately though The Late District is a bit of mixed bag. For starters there are a lot of instrumentals, the best of which Show Pony and the title track sound like refugees from The Light Programme with their low-key jazz.
Then there are few more rootsy tunes like Terrible Old Lizard that sound a little like the more offbeat stuff Robyn Hitchcock was offering in the late 80s.
And then there are few tasty pop morsels that are sure to please recent Cleaners From Venus converts. Standing out like a very sore thumb is Saturday Games which harks back to those early 80s cassettes with its long intro, twangy guitar and dreamy melody. It is wonderful, maybe his best recording in a decade.
Just as good is Idol, an old school Newell ballad which boasts a killer chorus. And then there’s Welcome to Heaven, more evidence that Martin Newell can still do Ray Davies, better than, well Davies himself.
If you have ever cherished any of Martin’s solo albums you’ll find much to enjoy here. If you have never been sucked into his universe though start with the early Cleaners recordings or Greatest Living Englishman.
You can download it here for a fiver.
And here’s his finest