Posts from 12th November 1999

12
Nov 99

The Wedding Present – Seamonsters

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What Becomes of The Broken Hearted?

Glamour is a pop critic’s fatal weakness. A bit of spangle and the dreariest band gets to count the raves on a hundred adoring hands, even if their records are then roundly ignored. Of course there’s no denying that a bit of glamour in pop is an intoxicating thing, but all the writers who hated the Wedding Present for its lack – and really hated them, from the soles of David Gedge’s scuffed D.M.s to the tufty peak of his nasty haircut – should have asked themselves whether the criticism wasn’t for once inappropriate.

David Gedge’s subject is love gone wrong: relationships breaking up and winding down, infidelity and infatuation and pointless lust and arguments and the awful daily grind human beings put themselves through for the sake of not being alone in the world. Now just as love-in-crisis messes with your sense of time, it also screws with your sense of distance – and distance is what glamour is all about. Glamour is choreography and a dab of vaseline on the lens, and heartbreak is about the camera getting broken because the focus knob’s fallen off. In the kind of scratchy, heated romantic agony Gedge is singing about, important things go to hell and tiny things barb themselves unshakeably in your skin. The essence of glamour and distance, too, is the bon mot, the epigram the glamourous use to cut the world into the shape they want. But in Seamonsters, Gedge is getting in too close to words, worrying at them like a terrier: “That’s what I thought you said…someone told me….I know I said….I know how this must sound” Uncertainty makes amateur critics of us all, endlessly probing every letter for its significance.

And then there’s the voice. David Gedge has a terrible voice, let there be no doubt about that. He can’t carry a tune, is pitifully unable to sustain notes, and his basic emotional range runs from wimpy half-croon to constipated growl. But here’s a funny thing: Seamonsters wouldn’t work without it, again because it’s so appropriate to the sludgy, desperate tone of the record. A wonderful voice just wouldn’t seem realistic for the material – you’d expect something more poetic, less doggedly conversational. Also, Gedge may be absolutely unable to sing, but his pacing is pretty good – the sweaty-palmed urgency of “Dare” comes as much from Gedge’s breathless delivery as from the helter-skelter music.

“Dare” is the standout track on the album, a song which finds Gedge hell-bent on making yet another bad mistake. The tracks like “Dare” and “Octopussy”, where Gedge is about to get what he wants, tend to be more mercilessly horrible than the ones where he’s had it taken away from him, partly because in them Gedge comes off as a calculating creep, but mostly because they give the opportunity for the crack band he’s lined up on Seamonsters to pump the tension up to near-unbearable levels. And this is the real reason to own a copy of Seamonsters: put simply, it rocks. When every other band in Britain took their cue from Manchester, MBV or the M25, Gedge looked to America, started covering Pavement songs, and finally went over there to make an Albini-produced record which married his dour romantic concerns to the knotty, rhythmic sound of US alt-rock.

Mostly, it’s a definite, compelling success. On “Corduroy” the band bite off more than they can chew with the kind of tiresomely tricksy tempo-changes which can stop any decent song in its tracks. A couple of songs are all grind and wallow and nothing else. But “Dalliance” does the quiet-loud thing better than any other British band ever has (and then doesn’t bother getting quiet again, thank goodness), “Octopussy” is taut, airless and visceral, and “Dare” kicks out the jams with eye-popping force and still has room for some awesome harpooned-whale guitar sounds. Gedge was never again to get a band this good together – a lot of his twelve 1992 singles have some good musical ideas which are never realised due to cardboard-box production and bad drumming, and after that he went all pop, and if ever there was a musician who shouldn’t make pop music it’s David Lewis Gedge.

Seamonsters is a misunderstood record, and a worthwhile one, but it’s still a difficult album to love: there have been and will be times when I simply could not have listened to it, whether because of the words or the voice or the general hopelessness of everything. Listened to now, after all the British pop it was so out-of-step with is long gone…well, I never thought I’d write this, but the Wedding Present, that received-wisdom byword for grey indie underachievement, sound bold.

29. SAINT ETIENNE – “He’s On The Phone”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles of the 90s

Of course it would take this supremely thoughtful pop group to realise the naive potential of handbag house and then alchemise it into a single which is both their and handbag’s most ravishing five minutes. Thoughtful? Why yes: the secret – a secret – of pop is that while it may sound instinctive it never is. People who complain about the “manufacture” of records should look around their own garrets and root out the tell-tale tools.

So Saint Etienne make a classic record. How can we tell it’s a classic? (After all, it shows every sign of being forgotten already). Well, just as the Pope requires two proven miracles to canonise a Saint, so we must identify two miraculous moments in a pop song before we can bestow perfection upon it. First, the opening piano line of “He’s On The Phone”, a self-confident shower of silver which sets standards only the most euphoric of tunes could match. Secondly, that immense, affirmatory chorus, that open-armed “Yes!” and langourous “oooooooh”. That’s enough by our rules, but Saint Etienne are generous enough to hand us a third such moment: when Sarah Cracknell sighs “Got the cash / Feeling flash / In Leicester Square”, in one breathless line telling us of an ordinary life worth living, and a London you might want to live it in.