The Wedding Present – ‘Seamonsters’: Round 77 – Rob’s choice

the wedding present - seamonstersImmediately I feel as if I have to start making excuses for The Wedding Present and, after some further consideration, I begin to realise that every time I feel this way it says a great deal more about me than it does about the music I’m inappropriately apologising for.

But here I go again.

The Wedding Present are one of the great British bands of the last 30 years. It’s my feeling, possibly misguided, that they have fallen from the pantheon and that at least one of the things that made them so distinctive initially and that really does make them remarkable, was responsible, erroneously, for their fading from such watery limelight as UK indie rock affords. Put another way, I think that the general sense was that they were a band with one trick and that, once experienced, it wasn’t worth sticking around to see the same trick performed all that many more times. I may be wrong but, if we assume for a second that I’m not, here are the problems with that:

1. They really weren’t a one-trick act.

2. Even if they were, it was a really, really good trick. The sort of trick that has seen respected playwrights in, through and out the other end of lauded careers, their reputations made, cemented and then maintained.

But they weren’t.

Let’s look at them as a musical outfit to start with. ‘George Best’, the debut album that established them in 1987, is a frenetic updating of the mid-80s jangle-pop template, bringing back the speed melodies of Buzzcocks and adding Gang of Four guitars that shredded fingers and eardrums. They may have come out of a scene that boasted The Field Mice and Tallulah Gosh, but The Wedding Present were hard and fast and different.

Then, rather than repeat this successful formula, they developed at an impressive pace. Their second record, 1989’s ‘Bizarro’, updated the formula, adding in extended, often drifting, structures and stuttering-stumbling rhythms often still played at breakneck speed but now creating foundations for songs which more closely echoed the awkwardness of their protagonists.

And then they went to Pachyderm Studios in rural Minnesota to record ‘Seamonsters’ with Steve Albini. Listening back to the album now it’s easy, and lazy, to conclude that they were grabbing onto the coat-tails of the increasingly prominent US underground scene and trying to ride them all the way to an updated sound and new audiences. Certainly the music they came back with now seems relatively well-worn and familiar in it’s tone and structure, 20-odd years down the line. That’s not how it went down back then, as I recall it, and I remember just how jarring and unexpected the ‘Seamonsters’ material sounded back then. However my recollections are extremely partial, so let’s pause for a moment to look at the timeline.

The band started working with Albini in 1989, basically off the back of ‘Surfer Rosa’ a record that David Gedge judged to have the balance between rock power and pop hooks that he was looking for. One of the first things they recorded together was a cover of ‘Box Elder’ a track by the then genuinely unknown Pavement. The Wedding Present version was released as a B-side 4 months before the release of Pavement’s second EP and fully 2 years before we were all wearing out ‘Slanted and Enchanted’ and considering ourselves cutting edge.

‘Seamonsters’ itself came out within a few weeks of Slint’s ‘Spiderland’ and a few months before ‘Nevermind’. So, the move from parochial Leeds to wild and widescreen USA was a heartfelt, radical and visionary move for a band who could quite easily have stayed home and ploughed their existing furrow for all it was worth.

Musically it’s a complete statement, raw and yearning, aggressive and unhinged, nuanced, powerful and evocative. Whilst it’s never more than four guys bashing away on guitars and drums, and it boasts none of deliberate artfulness or formal experimentation of some of the other landmarks of the period, it surpasses many for commitment, and instinctive execution. The record rocks and rolls and surges and howls and has speed freak-outs and stunned silences. There is emotion in guitars and drums, and by this point The Wedding Present knew how to wring it out.

So what about that one trick of theirs? How was that bearing up by 1991?

David Gedge is one of the truly great lyricists in rock history. That he chooses to use an apparently restrictive form is no matter (and no constraint for him) and ditto that he sings almost exclusively about the intimate, internal moments in the lives of ordinary people. His approach – he most commonly sings one half of a real or imaginary dialogue, leaving the listener to fill in the other speaker’s words – sounds disarmingly simple, (it isn’t in the slightest – just try it for yourself) but it creates such rich poetry. Take the chorus to ‘Corduroy’. How much of life and love is packed into these words and how many scenes spin away from them?

I’ll make you laugh / When you see this photograph
It’s not from that day / I threw all those away
It’s just some boy / Probably dressed in corduroy
He grew up fast / But you’ve not changed at all

What’s most immediate about Gedge’s words on ‘Seamonsters’ is how obscured they are. He adapted his singing voice in the run up to this album and the result was challenging, and then, additonally, his vocals were placed way down in the mix. Even now, after 24 years, words and phrases are only just coming to the surface. There’s something strangely fitting about that. For words which were written as if stolen from private, often imagined, conversations, having them emerge as if coalescing from the fog of memory makes them more powerful still.

It’s only dawned on me recently just how unflatteringly Gedge painted his protagonists/himself (the songs are in the first person, so we have to assume) in these early records. Regardless of how you may remember them, the songs on these first three albums are not about the unrequited love of dorky dreamers. Instead they’re about jealousy and petty, bitter jealousy at that. If you looked at these half-conversations from a neutral distance, he wouldn’t be the Lovelorn Hero, he’d be the Weird Outsider, almost the Stalker.

Even the snatches of studio dialogue that were included in some of the ‘George Best’ era releases seem deliberately chosen to make Gedge appear snippy and defensive. It’s also interesting to note that for a songwriter for whom lyrics were such a distinctive and important element, his words are not reproduced for the listener. This makes a release like ‘Seamonsters’ all the more mysterious and unfathomable, but it also speaks to Gedge’s self-effacement.

Ultimately, I wonder whether it was this very modesty and unassuming nature that made it relatively easy for us to move on from The Wedding Present. We should have been raising them to the rafters.

Footnote: Readers who are familiar with the band’s career will of course note that ‘Seamonsters’ was in fact their high water mark in terms of both sales and critical acclaim, rather than a neglected work. I did tell you I was wrong before I started.

Nick listened: I’d never knowingly listened to The Wedding Present before, and was pretty ignorant of their narrative; by the time I was getting into music properly and reading the weekly music papers they seemed like they were irrelevant, a spent force, a leftover from a previous era (that had only been about 18 months before; the way we experience cultural time fascinates me). Which is crazy, because a; so were Nirvana and My Bloody Valentine, amongst others, and b; The Wedding Present were still releasing records in 1994-1997, which were my peak ‘wow’ years.

With no expectations, I enjoyed this quite a lot. I suspect the songs are of the sort that take a while to unfurl and dig their grubby hooks in – Albini’s recording and mixing, and Gedge’s mumbling and misery, being the key reasons why that’s the case – but the sound – caustic, low-key, quintessentially Albini – is one of those things that just work as catnip to me. Would like to hear again.

Tom listened: I really wanted to go back and spend a bit more time with Seamonsters before writing about it..but I haven’t got round to it, so my initial reactions are all I have to go on.

I really didn’t get a handle on this at all. That’s not to say that I didn’t like it, far from it in fact! I sensed that this could have been great, but the relatively low volume at which it was played on the night coupled with the ridiculously low in the mix vocals meant that it felt as though I was listening with an upturned bin full of cotton wool over my head.

I wanted to hear David Gedge’s words (they’re always worth hearing, in much the same way as Alex Turner’s are – that straightforward Northern bluntness and humour runs through his songs and elevate them) and enjoy the bluff tones of his wonderfully flat singing voice. And it was a shame I didn’t because although this was an album full of fine pop tunes, The Wedding Present have always offered more than that and, on the night, I just couldn’t make that extra bit out!


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