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The Cleaners from Venus - The Cleaners from Venus, Vol. 1

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Artist: The Cleaners from Venus

Album: The Cleaners from Venus, Vol. 1

Label: Captured Tracks

Review date: Sep. 19, 2012

This initial trio of reissues documents the first three DIY cassette-only releases made by Cleaners from Venus, a British duo whose lo-fi pop experiments filtered British eccentric pop, a la The Kinks, Syd Barrett and XTC through the most minimal of recording technology and a scrim of politically engaged madness. The two Cleaners – Martin Newell and Lawrence “Lol” Elliott – met in Wivenhoe, a small-ish coastal town in southeast England at the beginning of 1980. They convened every day from November 1980 to April 1981, working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to write, perform and record songs. Two a day was the goal.

Newell played guitar and a bass left over from his old band, Plod, while Elliott battered an aged drum kit.

These early songs, which ran the gamut from exquisitely made romantic pop (“Marilyn on a Train”) to lefty manifestos (“Union Lads”) to miscellaneous genre experiments (reggae, disco, synth pop, free jazz) were captured on “a Sony sound-on-sound reel-to-reel tape recorder, a WEM Copicat echo unit, two or three cheap microphones and a few badly wired effects units,” according to the liner notes, and the sound was aggressively bad. The Cleaners intended, once they had enough songs, to distribute their cassettes for free – and, in fact, Elliott stole a great number of blank cassettes from chain stores in order to make it possible not to charge for the music. He was arrested however, and had to pay a fine, and after that, they decided to charge a little and buy their raw materials legitimately.

It’s hard to overstate the very DIY-ness of Blow Away Your Troubles -- 22 tracks of loosely strung, oddly chosen songs that drop out and fizzle as the tape quality varies. (Originally, the Cleaners made their cassettes to order, choosing songs as the mood took them, so that two people might own copies of Blow Away Your Troubles with entirely different sequencing and tracks.) There are some legitimately exhilarating moments – the giddy synth pop of “Blue Wave,” the soul-via-Orange Juice-ish lyricism of “Helpless,” and especially an early version of the band’s best song, “Marilyn on a Train” – and you can hear Newell’s very fine sense of melody already percolating through the muck. Yet, there’s also a fair amount of self-indulgence, songs that must have seemed like a good idea at the time but now feel faintly embarrassing. I’d count the reggae “Minimal Animal” in this category (performed in accent), the jokey piano and string bass thump of “So This is Modern Jazz, Is It?” (no), the skewed, silly voiced crooner pop of “Fell in Love with a Cleaner,” which sounds like Devo trying to be Tom Jones. This excess is an afterthought once you hear the 1980 version of “Wivenhoe Bells,” spectrally arranged around piano and some kind of minimal drums but carried by a chiming, soaring melody and the simplest words turned epic (“Weekend lovers snogging in the phone box / Hear Sunday church bells”).

For On Any Normal Monday, Newell purchased a 4-track, so the recording quality is better, and the ratio of really memorable songs to dross is far higher. “Night Starvations,” which opens the disc, is lush and layered by comparison to anything on the earlier cassette, with a beautiful, curving little melody, closely harmonized and set off by jangling guitars. “Tukani (Monday Is Grey),” is sparer, darker but equally effective, sounding more like The Cure than R.E.M. with its thudding bass and ominous, reverb soaked vocals. The disc’s goofily named “Girl with Cars in Her Eyes” manages a knife-balance of swoony romance and mad hatter eccentricity, while languid “I Can’t Stop Holding On” is perhaps the best song, but there is really not a cringe-worthy interval in the whole set. And, at a relatively manageable 11 cuts and 38 minutes (versus 22 songs and 65 minutes for Blow Away Your Troubles), it’s the kind of album you can get your head around. I’ve enjoyed bits of all three reissues, but Monday is the one I’ll want to listen to after this review’s finished.

Elliott was already on his way out during On Any Normal Monday, spending more and more time with a distant girlfriend, so by Midnight Cleaners, you begin to hear more drum machine than regular drums. Also the sound quality continues to improve, reaching toward the super-clean, slightly tinny aesthetic of late New Wave on this third disc. Opener “The Rainy Decade” is a glossy, synthy exercise in DIY disco, while “Only a Shadow” has the casual polish of New Romantic contemporaries like ABC and Soft Cell. It’s a relief to hear the relatively raw guitar sound of cuts like “Time in Vain” and “Factory Boy” for contrast. But as always, the songs are very strong, a bit mad (“Don’t You Worry about the Ads”) and utterly personal.

Newell continued with Cleaners from Venus without Elliott, making six more albums under the name after Midnight Cleaners, including the highly regarded Living with Victoria Grey. (More reissues are planned, according to his website.) He also formed Brotherhood of Lizards (one of whose members later joined New Model Army) and recorded sporadic solo material, the high point probably being the Andy Partridge produced Greatest Living Englishman in 1993. He continues to make music to this day.

Even so, these first three cassettes seem to capture a volatile, fast-developing period in Newell’s career, and also a genuine chemistry between Newell and Elliott. You can hear real pop songcraft amid the silly samples, the glitches, the oddball diversions, the hiss and fade-outs of very old cassette tape. The liner notes are quite good, too, charming, funny and full of information. But mostly the reissues are a triumph because they distill the roughness, the oddity and the gem-like tunefulness of these long out-of-print recordings. This is a very a welcome addition to the DIY pop archive.

By Jennifer Kelly

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