Formed in 1985 while The Smiths sat atop the UK music world, The Wedding Present began to rise in prominence with that Mancunian band’s breakup. Bypassing the Madchester movement, The Wedding Present’s style of lovelorn pop combined the shambling sound of C-86 with The Smiths’ more jangly elements, as well as the frenetic nature of The Fall and The Buzzcocks. Led by David Gedges, the band’s only permanent member, and championed by John Peel, The Wedding Present helped lay the foundation for Brit Pop while simultaneously avoiding any direct connection with the idiom.
After years of recording and releasing material on their own, The Wedding Present made the jump to a label after the company they relied upon for distribution, Red Rhino, went into receivership. Signing with RCA in 1989 granted the band a few contractual perks, such as retaining an option to independently release material rejected by RCA without contractual breach, as well as having their own choice of what singles to release and which producers to work with. Taking RCA at its word, The Wedding Present released ?????????? ??????? ? ????? ???? (Ukrainian John Peel Sessions), a compilation of the band’s first three Ukrainian language Peel Sessions, in February 1989 and, in October 1989, dropped Bizarro, the band’s first “proper” album for RCA.
The following year, Gedge decided to re-record Bizarro’s opening track, “Brassneck”, with Steve Albini producing. The collaboration led to the Brassneck and 3 Songs EPs. When asked why Albini was his choice, Gedge said, “I heard Surfer Rosa by the Pixies, and that record just sounded so fantastic. I was interested in some of his [Albini’s] other stuff as well, but I think that was the first record where it was… a pop group as well as a rock band, and I thought it would actually work for us…”
Despite the initial success of the two EPs, Gedges was still hesitant to record a full album with Albini: “I was quite scared it would end up coming out like [makes a series of horrible noises] all the way through.” Overcoming his slight acousticophobia, in the winter of 1991, Gedges, along with guitarist Peter Solowka, bassist Keith Gregory, and drummer Simon Smith, flew to Minnesota and recorded Seamonsters over a span of 10 days.
Today, Seamonsters is looked upon as somewhat of a contemporary classic. However, upon its initial release, both the band and album faced a backlash of negative criticism, including New Musical Express’s Steve Lamacq likening it to “having sandpaper rubbed over your ears.” Much of the criticism was fraught with misunderstanding and misplaced fears that the band had perhaps strayed from their more recognized style of pop, with one critic even arguing that The Wedding Present had gone grunge. The root of much of this stemmed from hiring Albini as producer.
From the moment Seamonsters begins with opening track “Dalliance”, there is a notable difference between this album and previous efforts. Gone are the jangly guitar lines that populated George Best and Bizarro, as well as the fuzzed-out guitar pop frenzy on songs like “A Million Miles” and “Take Me I’m Yours”. They’re replaced with darker, more direct guitar lines, an audibly more aggressive song attack, and raw percussion, all hallmarks of Albini’s production style. That aside, when you listen to this album, you’ll hear a pop album, plain and simple. It is not shambling, frantic pop, but pop that rocks, exactly what Gedge was looking for.
Complimented by Albini’s production and love of percussion, the album’s secret weapon is drummer Simon Smith, with his rapid, almost machine gun drum rolls punctuating Gedge’s songwriting. Though the music may have more of a punch to it thanks to Albini, the songs are pure Gedge, lyrically telling the same lovelorn tales. With a voice aurally similar to Ian Curtis, Mark Burgess, or Paul Banks, much has been made of Gedge’s limited vocal range. However, coupled with his conversational lyrics and idiosyncratic delivery, these apparent limitations are perhaps the one true constant on any Wedding Present record, helping to give the band its sonic signature.
Albini’s production, by his own definition, is limited, and therefore any changes to The Wedding Present’s sound, be they real or perceived, should be equally attributed to the band itself. Regardless of producer, this is still a Wedding Present album.
Gedge tries to convince a girl that it’s okay to cheat on her boyfriend with him in “Dare”, the album’s all-out rocker. Perhaps as a musical bridge to their previous work, that track is the closest thing to jangle that Seamonsters has to offer. Bubbling with a rolling guitar line that would become ubiquitous in indie pop by the end of the decade, “Lovenest” blasts forth his inability to get over an old flame, much to the possible demise of his current relationship, while “Suck” slows the pace a bit, with a tad of sludgy-ness applied, complimenting the song’s mood. Albini’s discordant noise makes appearances, and his production style certainly adds weight to the distortion employed by the band, but Seamonsters isn’t all abrasion.
“It’s not like that at all,” Gedge said. “Apart from the Pixies and The Breeders, we’re the only other band he has worked with who do acoustic type songs. He spent a lot of time getting the sound of an acoustic guitar right…” That shows on tracks like album centerpiece “Rotterdam”, resentment- and anger-filled track “Heather”, and album closer “Octopussy”, with its deceptively soft and simple guitar lines looping over and over, bringing the album full circle.
Hindsight being what it is, it’s rather difficult to understand why Seamonsters was not universally accepted when it was first released. One of the most uniquely crafted breakup albums ever written, its musical contributions to the blueprint of ’90s rock can be heard alongside the influences of Pavement, Guided by Voices, and Nirvana. Unfortunately, unlike Nirvana and more like Guided by Voices, The Wedding Present’s influence is not overt (and probably never will be).