By The Wedding Present
My earliest connection with Leeds goes back to discovering The Wedding Present some twenty odd years ago. Often the way, I came to them thanks to the impressive record collection of a friend's older brother. I was spending every spare penny on music by the time "Seamonsters", "Watusi" and "Saturnalia" were released but the fuse was sparked earlier listening to "Tommy", "George Best", "Bizarro" and Peel Sessions. Memories are flooding back... a single released every month for a year and all twelve songs reaching the UK Top 30 chart (a feat matched only by Elvis)... a "Top of the Pops" appearance where they caught presenter Anthea (sodding) Turner out (she thought they'd finished before they burst back into song)... Dave Gedge appearing on "This is Your Life" to say a personal and humble thank you to John Peel for helping their career (and for a lift as I recall)... Dave, unwittingly I'm sure if he ever reads this, writing in a birthday card for my 30th that my friend (see older brother's record collection) passed to him... I could go on. That card incidentally is now the bookmark in my copy of "Margrave of the Marshes" which sits next to my copy of "Thank yer very glad". An appropriate coupling, I reckon.
But before I continue with my memoirs let's steer it round to this month's new release, "Valentina". I approached it with some hesitation, fearing disappointment. What if it was neither of the things I wanted it to be; something new and refreshing, or something that reminded me of discovering the older albums? The cynic in me definitely wasn't expecting the album to do both, that I do know, nor did I expect to warm to the album as quickly as I did. Much in the way I read certain authors for their style, themes, humour, language and so on, I do the same with musicians. Of course they make a sound I generally like but it's everything else that really draws me in. The inimitable watermark some authors have running through their work in mind, why did I ever doubt "the boy Gedge" would fail to hit the mark? Even before listening, just holding the case is nice. The feel of the packaging and subtly stylised artwork reminiscent of the colours used by Ozenfant make it an understatedly beautiful thing in itself. Inside it gets even better.
"Valentina" is built on of tales of a love ending; the point where lines are crossed and the taste of relationships go sour beyond the palatable. If you're unfamiliar with The Wedding Present this might sound a tad depressing but as anyone that's wondered at Gedge's poetic mastery and charmingly regional take on matters of the broken heart knows, that's never the case. The guitars have guts and an edge, the drums an attitude and spirit, and the vocals a wry smile and occasional victorious scorn. Life without love isn't seen as a battle lost - sometimes it's simply the point where you can get back to being yourself, living honestly and getting on with your own life. This is where a certain familiarity shines through on "Valentina" and makes the album a perfect, contemporary bedfellow to earlier releases.
If you want to sample the rumbling drums, Gedge's trademark tones and jangling guitars then start with album opener "You're Dead". For delicate female backing vocals over punchy bass and tight drums opt for "You Jane" where you'll find Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, Clark Gable and Tarzan for company. "Meet cute" is one for fans of Seamonsters era singles where you'll find an old friend in the quiet to loud sense. The loser in love theme is summed up by lines like "You're really way out of my league" reminding me of more, older songs in their canon. Even just from its title "Back a bit...Stop" has the colloquial charm fans will recognise instantly and the song itself, with almost spoken choruses, jangling guitars and neat rhythms make for it sounding like a missing track from an earlier album. But where you'll find the self-deprecation of "Oh how embarrassing could this be" and "You're really way out of my league", you'll also hear careful nods to modern culture in lyrics such as "my so called life" and "for that reason, I'm out", bringing customary themes nicely up to date.
Whereas some tunes fade through distortion and sonic fuzz to convey a bridge between two tales, others bleed into each other, or carry on where the other left off, sometimes sounding more like movements rather than a change in songs. There are points where the tracks end and join almost seamlessly onto the start of the next and in just the right places; "You Jane" becomes "Meet cute", "524 Fidelio" (superb, possibly my standout track) drops brilliantly into the two panned drums mixed at the beginning of "End Credits", and "Deer Caught in the Headlights" is the perfect musical follow-on from "Girl from the DDR". On the latter, German backing vocals add colour and light to one of the more instantly foot tapping tracks. Whereas the Japanese spoken in the background on "Mystery Date" creates a lonely atmosphere, playing out like an unwatched television left on for company in an empty lounge. Either that or an answerphone message played over and over but whatever its meaning it adds a dreamlike quality to round off the album.
It'd be easy to be in a band for this many years and to lose their "love of life" but The Wedding Present have stamped a rejuvenated esprit des corps all over and throughout "Valentina" delivering an album that should both appeal to fans old and new alike. I've been adding some classic recordings to the collection lately and while it's great to work my way through "The Complete Peel Sessions" and the "Live" albums, looking back fondly as I do, it's also great to start anew with songs I can enjoy from scratch.