My first thought on re-immersing myself into the marvelous world of Mr. Martin Newell was:
How did I never know that he shared the same birthday as me?
I can finally stop citing Paula Prentiss as the famous celebrity who was also born on March 4. Newell-y buries the one-time Mrs. Richard Benjamin, am I right?
My next thought was:
How fast can I get my hands on this new Cleaners from Venus record?
And your next thought should be exactly the same. Well, the good news is that the fine folks at Soft Bodies Records will be releasing it in July and you can go here to pre-order it now. And supposedly the equally fine folks at Burger Records will be putting it out on cassette too.
In the meantime, you can also head over to Martin's official website to read more about Return To Bohemia.
Now, on to the actual tracks, all 12 delightful ones.
"Cling to Me" opens with a keyboard sound like something out of an old Tupac joint but the guitars crash in like Black Sea-era XTC. Martin Newell's vocals recall the Beatles on tracks like "Rain" but this tune is overall more rustic and less a psychedelic jam than a spin on English whimsy a la Hitchcock and his Egyptians.
"He's Goin' Out with Marilyn" is more chiming guitars -- think Peter Buck circa 1985 set down in Merry Olde England -- and romantic angst -- jealousy? -- in Martin's catchy tune.
"The Days of May" is a beautiful and contemplative song that reminds a listener of why Martin Newell is a somewhat overlooked genius. The way he sings "...on a half-remembered town" is sublime and it's a moment -- like the way the piano enters this cut -- that just warms the heart. Classic songwriting here on this one that somehow bridges the long lineage of British rock with something new. The sound of a man caught between a bright future and a look back over his shoulder at those passing "...days of May".
"The Royal Bank of Love" is aching, plaintive, and beautiful. Martin's guitar squalls behind his voice and the axe briefly roars like the Buzzcocks backing up a folky troubador.
"Mrs. Gale and Her New Lover" opens with some organ straight out of a mid-1960s beat era group, the keyboards anchoring Martin's tale of a lady whose love-life inspires gossip in the town.
"A European Girl" has a folk-y shuffle underpinning Martin's tale of a trip to Europe by rail.
"Welcome to Bohemia" is a near-spoken word, sort of funky, tour of Martin's world. It is admittedly odd to hear Martin mention "Facebook" and the like. I always thought Martin lived in some decidedly quaint English town -- the real place The Kinks' "The Village Green Preservation Society" was about -- stuck in an era before those webby things invaded our lives. The guitar solo here is awesome, by the way.
"Time We Talked" matches lovely backing vocals up against a melody that McCartney wishes he had penned.
"The King of the Sixties" has a hook that makes me think of XTC's "The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead" but the melody here is lovelier and the tune more intimate. Make no mistake: it's catchy like that XTC cut but Martin is introspective even as his guitar chords ring and slash.
"She took the sun for a lover and used the moon for her cover..."
And that is a fantastic line, isn't it? Part Partridge, Part Costello, and all new Newell.
Which all brings us to the absolutely haunting "Imaginary Seas". With nature sounds from some Virginia Astley-esque English countryside, and piano chords left over from Lennon, Martin purrs his ode to those "imaginary seas" and "summer love". Just a sublime and perfect cut that immediately brought a tear to this old Yank's eye.
I mean, if Brian Wilson had been born an Englishman he'd have been writing stuff like this, you know?
"The Band Plays Deliah" is a stately march up the keys. The sound of nostalgia, bottled and aged to perfection. The sound of a memory being reflected upon.
Album closer "I Wanna Stay In" is a worthy partner to the similarly themed "I Wanna Stay Home" from Jellyfish. Again, Martin Newell draws upon imagery of summer. It's the sound of the end of summer and a looming autumn in front of you. The guitar-work here is a joy -- Newell unfurls a beautiful solo that sounds like a relaxed Richard Thompson (for lack of a better comparison).
A fitting end to this splendid Return to Bohemia record from Martin Newell and his Cleaners from Venus.
Martin Newell is one of the treasures of British music. It seems decidedly unfair to work Andy Partridge into the review but if that gets people to listen to Martin's music, then it's worth it. In my case, perhaps I had read about The Cleaners from Venus back in the States decades ago but I never actually heard them. But then I saw Partridge's name on a Newell CD and I picked it up, listened, and was hooked.
So if that Partridge connection gets Martin new fans so it's not necessarily a bad thing. And for a writer, it makes it easier to describe this sort of music. If I say "If you like Mummer and Skylarking, you'll like this", it makes sense to you, right? I've aroused your interest, assuming you might be one of the unlucky ones who's not heard Martin's music before.
Return to Bohemia stands completely on its own as a tribute to quality English song-craft. A collection of tunes that should please long-time fans of The Cleaners from Venus and Martin Newell as well as a set that should serve as an easy entry-point for new listeners.
Go to Martin Newell's official website to read more about the Cleaners from Venus and Return To Bohemia.
This YouTube clip of Martin Newell on his quest to write a Eurovision tune also features new tune "The Days of May" starting at around 2:02.