Listening Post (The Wedding Present Edition)

Wedding seamonsters

I stumbled across The Wedding Present in 1989, thanks to some music magazine I’ve long forgotten. I want to say it was an early iteration of Alternative Press, but that magazine’s been so bad for so long that I have a hard time believing they ever covered anyone good.  Anyway, their 1989 album Bizarro had just been released, and the magazine was touting them as “the next Smiths.” As a 16-year-old kid heavily into angst, and distraught that I had discovered Morrissey & Marr only after they had broken up, this sounded like it was right in my wheelhouse.

Turns out, the “next Smiths” label was a misnomer. The Wedding Present’s early records (pretty much everything up through Bizarro) were frenetic things – all hyperkinetic C-86 jangle courtesy of guitarist Peter Solowka and singer, guitarist, and sole band mainstay David Gedge. The only Smiths comparison I could hear was in Gedge’s lyrics. They broached the same lovelorn territory as The Smiths’ songs – infidelity is one of Gedge’s pet themes – only without all of Morrissey’s fey melodrama and literary pretensions. Instead, they were full of dry humor and easily recognizable relationship details sung in Gedge’s vaguely croaky vocals. I immediately fell in love with Bizarro and their 1987 debut George Best. The energy of those rapid-fire guitars was infectious, and the plainspoken, Everyman quality of Gedge’s lyrics was less depressing than the Morrissey and Ian Curtis quagmire I’d been marinating in for over a year.

1991’s majestic Seamonsters was released two years later, and nothing could have prepared me for it. The album starts quietly with “Dalliance,” Gedge singing over a simply strummed guitar: “You’ve told him lies now for so long/Yet still he’s ready to forgive/He’s got you back and that’s all he wants/It’s a lot more than I’m left with.” It continues in this vein for over two minutes, seemingly leaving behind the runalong rush of earlier albums for more sedate pastures. But then the 2:45 mark hits, Gedge snarls, “I still want to kiss you,” and the song erupts in the roiling, churning sea of Gedge and Solowka’s guitars. It’s a moment that still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.

“Dalliance” immediately establishes Seamonsters as a wholly different beast than the previous two albums. Produced by Steve Albini, it’s a darker and slower collection of songs, the ramshackle riffing of earlier albums replaced by guitars that snarl and roar, in some cases darting in and out of the mix (such as “Carolyn,” built around an acoustic guitar for most of its running time until a buzzsaw hacks the song to glorious pieces in its final minute). They haven’t completely left behind their signature sound – “Dare” is a propulsive, crackling beast of a song and the outro of “Rotterdam” jangles merrily – butSeamonsters is the sound of a band stretching itself beyond what could have been a stylistic dead-end.

The biggest change is that Seamonsters is the first (and only, really) Wedding Present album to have an undeniable groove, all ten songs propelled by Simon Smith’s monstrous drums. “Lovenest” is Exhibit A, entering on slithering feedback before the drums push Gedge’s vocals (a simple, perfect lyric: “I heard another voice this morning on the ‘phone/But just the other day I thought you said you slept alone/And yes I knew that laughter, okay, now I see/You wouldn’t even know him if it hadn’t been for me”) to the chorus and a sudden torrent of feedback and percussion. “Lovenest” ends with a full 90 seconds of crackling feedback before plunging headlong into “Corduroy’s” tribal drumming and thunderclouds of distortion.

The album ends on a moment of quiet beauty. “Octopussy” slowly dissolves into gently strummed guitars as Gedge sings, “We don’t have to do anything/We don’t have to do anything except watch the leaves/Turning in the wind.” It’s a dark album whose brilliance the band never quite matched in subsequent releases (which is saying something since all their albums are aces). But man – for 42 minutes I’m convinced this is as good as it gets.

Since Seamonsters the band has gone through various lineups with Gedge as the only consistent member. He shelved the band in 1997 to launch Cinerama for a few albums, then revived the Wedding Present name in 2005 with all new members. Despite these changes – and the passage of time, which renders many bands irrelevant – quality control has remained remarkably high, and any of their albums is worth your time.

Next steps: I can easily recommend everything they’ve recorded, but if you like Seamonsters (and if you don’t, you’re dead to me), go with George Best (1987) to hear their early adrenalized rush, then skip to Watusi (1994) for an infusion of pop smarts.  The band’s best latter-day album is 2012’s Valentina, which will give you a good idea of what they’re up to now.

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