Music Features

Used Adventures In Hi-Fi #2

The Wedding Present: Seamonsters (Cancer Research, Epping, £1.75) 

Epping, but a small country town at the borders of Essex, is something of a hidden jewel in terms of its charity shops. These are not the slightly shambolic mom-and-pop outfits of most towns: here the operations are well-drilled, large-scale and impressive. I’ve seen charity shop tourists here, that most intriguing of cultural sub-genres; one might argue that I’m one myself. 

On my most recent visit I returned home with two very worthy contenders to be written of – in previous times I’ve plugged significant holes in my Nick Cave collection, I’ve relived the nineties I never knew via Pearl Jam, and have returned with more paperbacks than I’ll maybe ever read. This time around Neal Stephenson was accompanied by two records from 1991 – one a curio, an amateurish, almost outsider-art single offering from Jad Fair’s legendary Half Japanese. The other, and my subject today was an altogether different beast. Whereas Half Japanese’s sloppy, student-ish production (by the Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker, no less) recalled early Daniel Johnston, David Gedge’s Mancunian power-pop warriors are cast into pastures new by the talismanic hand of one Steve Albini. 

My first rummage into Albini’s oeuvre came at university, resulting in a joyous moment where Big Black’s Kerosene simultaneously caved in a dozen techie skulls during a slideshow. And he’s remained a consistently interesting figure: operating on the margins of acceptability for twenty years, Albini’s developed a singular and unwavering approach to his music, and while his stated aim is to make the bands with whom he works sound as much as possible like themselves, his is a signature sound more distinct than many credit him for.  

Compare Seamonsters with The Wedding Present’s most famous outing, 1987’s George Best. The latter’s breezy, bluster pop-punk sat well as a harder-edged counterpoint to the Smiths’ lyrical meanderings and jangly guitar. The presence of Ukrainian guitarist Peter Solowka gave the record a distinctive sound and Gedge and co. quickly became an indie-level success. By 1991, and on their third album, the trademark sentence-length song titles (What Did Your Last Servant Die Of?, You Can't Moan Can You) had condensed to concise, sharp points (Dare, Blonde), something echoed in the altogether more serious music. Solowka was gone, a producer with the Pixies and Slint to his name was in, and The Weds means business.  

In a way, you know what you’re going to get with Steve Albini: the best-sounding drums in the business; guitars which snarl rather than purr; vocals recorded in ten minutes; and dynamics. Wow, the dynamics. Opening track Dalliance is maybe the best example of this most under-appreciated of talents. In a world where over-compression reigns supreme, where mp3 is an acceptable audio format, where television crushes our sensibilities, Dalliance starts off far too quiet. But you know what, this is a builder like nothing else this side of Mogwai Young Team, and it’s utterly thrilling. I mean absolutely, superbly, wonderful. Yes, Gedge sounds like he rattled off his lyrics singing a couple of takes in a public convenience, and they’re woefully undermixed, but that’s Albini, that’s intentional. You have here a man who knows what he’s talking about when nobody else does, and that’s what makes Seamonsters such a gem.  

Albini went on to produce Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Low (thank goodness he broke his own rules and focused a bit on the vocals), even Bush. The Wedding Present eventually split leaving Solowka to produce Ukrainian folk versions of Smiths songs and Gedge to channel John Barry with Cinerama. But for a moment there, 17 years ago, they made an album which enabled me to fall in love for less than the price of a sandwich.