Josef’s Jukebox: Seamonsters by The Wedding Present

Summer ’14 and I am perusing my mother’s battered anthology of gig tickets. Flicking through, I observe that circa fifteen stubs have the same name printed on them — The Wedding Present. I ask my mother why anyone would want to see the same band that many times? Surely mild boredom would manifest in the attendee after gig five; abject ennui after gig ten; some form of PTSD developing after gig fifteen and lord knows what else. Stupidly, I ignore my mother’s response that The Wedding Present were unlike any other group and that I should ‘give them a go’, opting instead to retreat into the snug embrace of Blur LPs that frequent my streaming turntable. Little did I know…

In ’84, a Leeds-based band called The Lost Pandas folded. The group’s lead vocalist, David Gedge, and bassist Keith Gregory, decided to continue the indie journeyman’s toil, recruiting schoolfriend Peter Solowka on guitar and Shaun Charman on drums. Gedge’s fondness for Aussie post-punkers The Birthday Party resulted in this new group adopting the name The Wedding Present, and the band started touring the university club and bar circuit. A debut single ‘Go Out and Get ’Em Boy!’ was recorded, self-financed and released by the group in ’85. The song was met with widespread critical acclaim, most notably from the oracular John Peel who invited the band to record their first of many Peel sessions in February ’86. A further string of C86-style singles were released, and the group’s debut record George Best (released on their own label Reception Records) charted at #47 in November ’87. The success of the record led to a contract with RCA and the group’s first major label release was an idiosyncratic collection of Ukrainian folk music (Українські Виступи в Івана ПілаUkrainski Vistupi v Ivana Pila; February ’89). The group’s sophomore studio LP Bizarro (October ’89) heralded the band’s first Top 40 hit, with the sacking of Charman catalysing the band’s shift to a darker and more ominous sonic landscape. Gedge’s fondness for Pixies’ seminal debut Surfer Rosa led to the recruitment of the LP’s engineer Steve Albini and in early ’91; The Wedding Present decamped to rural Minnesota to begin recording their third studio album — Seamonsters.

The needle hits the groove, and the record begins. The opening track ‘Dalliance’ immediately signifies The Wedding Present’s departure from the jangle-pop of yesteryear to the ubiquitous aggression of 90s North-West rock. This palpable sense of tension permeates throughout the LP as ‘loud-quiet-loud’ dynamics dominate proceedings on the discordant bridges of ‘Lovenest’ and the verse-chorus transitions on ‘Corduroy’. Gedge’s style of conversational lyricism frequently switches from personal introspection to the lovelorn woes of others. Topics range from Leo Cooper’s seven-year affair with publicist Sarah Johnson (‘Dalliance’), foliage-based fornication (‘Heather’) and cabin fever romance (‘Octopussy’). A nod to TWP’s forebears is also welcome, with ‘Rotterdam’ and its outro paying appropriate homage to Lou & The VU.

Aside from the songs themselves, Seamonsters repents for the production sins of the band’s previous LPs. Longstanding producer Chris Allison too often failed to showcase the group’s raw viscerality; something which this album makes a conscientious effort to rectify. Renowned for his ‘plug in and record’ approach, Albini’s production style naturally lends itself to a band who can only be truly appreciated in a live capacity. Constructing richly textured and overdriven sonics, Albini places emphasis on the ferocity of the guitars; the machine gun bullets of drummer Simon Smith; the growling timbre of Gedge and his narrative. Allowing the music to simply present itself ensures a truly immersive listening experience, especially when the song writing is sui generis.

Nevertheless, the record is not without fault. Whilst Albini’s engineering certainly buoys up the songs’ esprit de corps, the vocal level frequently drops too low in the mix to hear the exact nature of Gedge’s croonings, most notably on ‘Carolyn’. The album also lacks a clearly defined set of hit singles to (deservedly) propel the record into the mainstream. Whereas Bizarro offered up a smorgasbord of potential chart toppers (including the overrated, yet absurdly catchy, ‘Kennedy’), the sonic aesthetic of Seamonsters shaves off the trebly sensibilities of the band’s previous LPs, resulting in the off-album B-side ‘Crawl’ being the only candidate with the required ‘poppiness’ to appeal to the masses. Yet this fact alone should not result in the eternal damnation of the record; as David once said to me, the musical trajectory of The Wedding Present has been defined by the deliberate and continual alienation of their previous records’ fans.

By no means did Seamonsters mark the apex of The Wedding Present’s career. Deciding that a fourth record was too generic for a band who pride themselves on constant creative evolution, the group embarked upon what was to be one of the alternative sphere’s greatest commercial achievements. In ’92, The Wedding Present scored twelve UK Top 30 hits in a single calendar year, a feat still only matched by The King himself; a remarkable accomplishment considering the relative popularity of the two acts. Watusi (’94) & Saturnalia (’96) followed, before Gedge instigated an eight-year hiatus of the group in order to pursue his fondness for orchestral film scores through the Cinerama project. Reforming in ’04, The Wedding Present continue to record, play, and innovate to this day; as I write, the group are in the throes of preparation for a thirtieth-anniversary live stream of Seamonsters played in its entirety.

In all honesty, my waxing lyrical cannot accurately convey my feelings towards this group. Whilst Seamonsters is an axiomatically brilliant record, it’s The Wedding Present’s full body of work which I find so remarkable. A vast discography of sonically discrete components bound together by a writing style which makes each LP instantly identifiable as a Gedge & Co production. In fact, out of any album I’m sharing in this writing series, this one means the most to me. Shame does not plague me when I admit that Seamonsters has sound-tracked my heartbreak of the recent past; doubtless it will provide the same function in future failed dalliances. And the fact that so few of my contemporaries know about the group only adds to the sense of dutiful veneration I feel compelled to extoll and promote.

In the same way that a deep reverence for Mozart, Bach et al. is ingrained in the public psyche, our descendants will undoubtedly have the same retrospective appreciation for the guitar bands who took to the stage in the latter half of the twentieth century. I have no doubt that Gedge’s songwriting and lyricism will be heralded as some of the greatest to have arisen from the western canon of popular music. As always, listen to the record and make up your own mind. If you’ve lost your love of life, you’re bound to appreciate it that bit more.

Seamonsters was recorded in early 1991 at Pachyderm Studios, Cannon Falls, Minnesota, United States. Released May 27th, 1991 on RCA.

Track Choice: ‘Corduroy’

Word Choice: “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”.

About J. Oscar Weinstein

J. Oscar Weinstein is the founder and artistic director of MoJo Edinburgh. His mini-series, Josef's Jukebox, explores his desert island records.

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