European Pop Reissues: Cleaners From Venus & Orange Juice

Over here in America, there is a lot of music that we never really get to hear because for one reason or another. Either it is not marketed successfully or simply never gets the necessary distribution to appear here on physical store shelves. (Yeah... physical stores, 'member them?) That same distribution that keeps some music out of select markets also impedes on the music's ability to be discovered. So time and time again I find out about amazing fun music that one used to have to struggle to find here in the US of A.

cleanerswagescover.jpgFortunately, the Interwebs and a broadening global listening community, these barriers are slowly starting to break down and now we find more and more interesting musics old and new to discover.

Here are a couple of discoveries I made this year which you too may have overlooked.

Cleaners From Venus: I had actually heard of the singer from this group as he put out one of the most wonderful slabs of British pop back in the 1990s in conjunction with XTC's Andy Partridge. But apart from that album -- The Greatest Living Englishman -- I knew little about singer/songwriter Martin Newell. Finding his other releases were equally elusive. However, bit by bit, details emerged and in ye olde moderne tymes of thee Internets I was blessed to be able to obtain a lovely limited-edition vinyl pressing of one of his earliest cassette-only releases from the mid-'80s, Songs For a Fallow Land. Fab stuff for those of us who like our pop rocks decidedly British-flavored.

Accordingly, I was pleased to see earlier this year a boxed set emerge featuring four LPs by Newell's band Cleaners From Venus. Now, not fully knowing what the Cleaners really sounded like, I was hesitant to spring for the hefty multi-disc package.

cleanersfromvenusPLAYING.jpgBut then a little later in the year, single releases of the albums from the set began to appear in the stores. Replete with essential promotional information printed on a sticker applied to the cover, one of them caught my eye: "My Back Wages is largely comprised of demos for Martin Newell's solo LP The Greatest Living Englishman."

I was sold right then and there and put my money down for the LP (it was about $15 including a download). Initally I thought this was the final release from the Cleaners From Venus as previously released in 2000 on CD. It's not quite that, as I learned from reading fine print in the liner notes. Adding to the oft-joyous confusion of some independent releases, according to the liner notes it appears that this album is something of a "director's cut" of outtakes and demos. The actual last Cleaners From Venus album -- which is also titled My Back Wages -- is apparently compiled on a separate disc called Extra Wages. Got that?

I'll be picking that one up soon.

Thus, these recordings do in fact sound less like a "band" and more like a set of home demos. Nonetheless, the music is simply charming on this lovely, well-pressed, dead-quiet thick vinyl. It is a wonderful listening experience in all its lo-fi glory. The sparkly jangly demo of "She Rings The Changes," one of the standouts from the Greatest Living Englishman collection, is worth the price of admission itself. The drum-machine and synthesizer demo of "Before the Hurricane" is also charming, showcasing the strength of the songwriting there.

This is fun stuff!

OJ cover.jpgOrange Juice: In contrast, before this series of LP reissues started appearing in 2013, I had somehow never ever heard of this 1980s band, which is surprising. Back in the day -- and still today for that matter! -- I regularly frequented indie record stores which usually featured lots of European artists (that is how I first got turned on to the Cure, the Smiths and many others, in fact).

Doing some research I learned that Orange Juice was the original band behind Edwyn Collins, who later had a groovy modern soul hit in 1994 ("A Girl Like You"). I've enjoyed Collins' CDs but not ever having even heard about his original band, and knowing utterly no one who was into them, I wasn't quite ready to spring the $25 for the nice 180-gram reissue.

Yeah, I know I could have just searched on YouTube for some clips and made a decision that way, but that isn't how I usually like to discover my music. Perhaps I am old school that way. So it goes...

Fortunately, my Beatle-buddy Frank who works at one of the local record stores here in San Francisco gave the first Orange Juice album (with its distinctive leaping Dolphins cover art) a big thumbs up and thus I purchased it a few months ago.

While the pressing and sonics are fine, I have to admit I wasn't immediately taken with You Can't Hide Your Love Forever. It took a few plays over time and then one day I found I was finally inside the music. And now I really quite enjoy it.

What does Orange Juice sound like? I knew you'd ask. Well, this first album by Orange Juice features a kind of angular, yelp-y pop rock sound, a touch of '80s New York new wave flair and a vocal sound that is distinctly... well.... not quite English!

OrangeJuiceLPplaying.jpgOrange Juice is from Scotland!

Perhaps, if you will, imagine if Morrissey was singing lead vocals on the first Talking Heads album (Talking Heads '77) instead of David Byrne and the actual band members playing that music were the Gang of Four or early New Order and you sort of have an idea of what to expect from Orange Juice. If you liked the first album by Franz Ferdinand, you'll probably like this.

Yeah... Morrissey fronting Talking Heads. Now, there is one to ponder.

But I think its kind of fair because -- at least on this album -- Orange Juice is playing with those tonal flavors. Pungent, melodic bass lines, angular rhythm guitar spikes, rock-solid drumming and soul-influenced vocals that are passionate and vulnerable at the same time, lyrics that are darkly introspective.

It's all there on You Can't Hide Your Love Forever, right down to the Al Green-inspired "L.O.V.E. Love."

Actually it'd be great to hear David Byrne sing that one. I think we're on to something now...

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